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How Big?

l11hermanos I remember our road trips to New York when I was young. We had a family of five, so there were three of us in the back of a Mazda GLC and lots of territorial fighting; “That’s my space you’re in!” we would cry, or “Why do I have to sit on the hump?” would be a frequent complaint. I vowed then and there that I would never have a family of five. Time, though, has a way of softening our youthful vows, and here I am the father of three in a family of five, a decent group by American standards and certainly when it comes to the limits of my patience.

What would I do with one more? Two? How about 8 more? I can’t event imagine. Yet LARGE families seem to be a standard, especially when we head outside of Mérida. The picture above can be translated, “The Store of the 11 Brothers.” Imagine the situations that a family of that size could get into! The kicker was what happened as I was trying to get the photo. One of my students, unimpressed, said, “I come from a family of 13 brothers and sisters.”

Speaking of heading out of Mérida, say a prayer for us this weekend as I lead a group of students from the Bible Institute for a two-day campaign in the city of Tekax (Teh-cash).

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Dave Teaching

Teaching in Opichen

Around this time of the year, I start to get anxious. It’s been almost three months since the end of the World Series, and we’ve got only a few short weeks until pitchers and catchers report to start the 2009 baseball season. I’m looking forward to the date with anticipation, knowing that soon they’ll be playing baseball, and hoping that this will be the season that the Yankees win it all again.

In order to prepare, I start to watch baseball movies. One such movie is The Rookie , that Disney released some years ago. It’s the story of a high school science teacher who gets another shot at playing in the majors. In one scene, travailing in the minor leagues, traveling the lonely miles and feeling the pressure of his responsibilities at home, he decides to throw in the towel. “I’m just wasting my time,” he says to his wife over the phone. She asks back, referring the the game, “Do you still love it?”

He hangs up the phone and goes for a walk to think it over once again. Along the way, he encounters a night little league game, and in it he finds the joy and the hope in the game that he played as a child and had been given a chance to return to as an adult. With a renewed outlook, he heads back to the locker room. As he enters he asks another player, “Do you know what we get to do today?” Then, answering his own question he says, “We get to play baseball.”

Why am I waxing eloquent about baseball? Because I’ve been thinking about our job as missionaries. Lately, we’ve been really busy, rushing from place to place. I celebrated my daughter’s birthday on Saturday and directly after I was teaching our first session of the District Stewardship conferences that I had been invited to teach. Since that time, I’ve been on the road 3 of the past 4 nights, getting to bed later each night. When this finishes, I’ll be on the road again, this time to help in an evangelistic campaign that will take place two hours outside of Merida, where we have our home.

At times like these, I find myself missing my family, looking forward to getting home, and sometimes wishing that the events would be over. But then I have to ask myself what it is that I am actually doing. I received the call to missions when I was 15 years old, and since that time, my life had been centered around making it to the field. We prepared ourselves, obtained the necessary approvals, and raised funds for the purpose of becoming missionaries. Now, we’re doing it. How many times have I hoped, prayed, and dreamed of the day that God would allow us to make it to the field, and now it’s a reality.

Thinking about it again I’d have to say that, sure there are times when we find it hard, but we’re doing what we’re called to do. God’s fulfilled our dream, and every moment that we have here is another moment that we get to step out into another adventure with our Lord.

So I want to say thanks to all of you who have had a part in helping us to get here and stay here. I’d also like to ask you to pray for us. Pray that the words that we say would be what God would ask us to share, and pray that these events will reach the people that He’s preparing. And while you’re doing that, stop for a moment and thank God for the journey that you’re on with Him. After all, “We get to play baseball!”

Thumbnail appearing on the excerpt of this article from B Tal’s photostream on Flickr.com

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Here’s something to cheer you up:

Piñatas are a common site these days, cropping up in kid’s parties almost as often in the US as they do in Mexico. But what happens when the piñata is for adults? Take a look at this video from Mérida and see how piñatas have the tendency to bring out the kid, and the competition in everyone of us.

Can’t see the video. Check it out here.

Maya Language School Itzamná

Maya Language School Itzamná

Ma’alob k’iin. Bix a beel’ex. Having trouble responding? That’s because what my greeting was written in Maya. It reads, “Good morning. How are you?” (There are no question marks in Maya)

Here in the Yucatán the official language is Spanish. For this reason, we spent our first year of this term in Costa Rica learning Spanish so that we could live and work here in Mérida. Nevertheless, there are times, like this past month when we journeyed to the town of Tekax, that even speaking in perfect Spanish isn’t enough. That is because, in several towns in the state of Yucatán, many still speak the traditional indigenous language which has changed only slightly from the time of the pyramid builders of Chichen Itza to the present. Others are bilingual, having learned Spanish in school, but clearly function better in their native language.

So how do we respond to this fact? Well, we could rely upon those who are bilingual to translate for us, hoping that they will correctly interpret the meaning of our message. But what does this teach the Maya speakers? I feel it teaches them that the gospel is something foreign. Something that requires special abilities in order to understand, and that salvation is reserved for those who earn it by learning this foreign system. I don’t believe that our God is like that.

From the beginning, with the question, “Adam, where are you?”, we know that God initiated his plan of salvation. Romans 5:8 says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And John 1:14 says that Jesus, the very Word of God came near, and lived among us. We are not those who search for Him says Romans 3:10-11, He comes after us.

How does this translate then as a reaction to the situation of the Maya here in Yucatan? Years ago, before archeology became the force that it is today, many thought that the Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written was a sacred tongue. This was thought because the texts available to the scholars at the time, that of Classical Greek was different from what they saw in Bible. However, as more research came to light, they found that the New Testament Greek was not a sacred language after all. In fact, it was the common speech–that which the housewives used to write out their shopping lists. So, in fact, we see that the very Bible that we read is another aspect of God “coming near” to us. He didn’t speak through the elite of the society or through a priestly class, He instead spoke through the common tongue of the merchants, the peasants, and the slaves.

Understanding this, if we are to “come near” as Christ’s ambassadors and show the Maya that this message is in fact for them, that Christ came to save every, tribe, tongue and nation, then we in turn should take the steps to learn to share this salvation in their native tongue.

So that in fact is what we are doing. Every Monday and Wednesday for two hours, I am traveling to the “Ermita”, a plaza south of town, to learn to speak and write the Maya language. (The picture in this post is a shot of the entrance to the building.) The municipal government has established a course in which they teach citizens and foreigners at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels for only $5 a month. Having extended for a year, and having scheduled outreaches into these Maya speaking regions, this was an offer that we couldn’t refuse.

So here I am again learning anew how to function in another language, struggling to come up with the words to respond to the teacher. However, when I consider what Christ did for us, coming to us as a baby, unable to speak, to function on His own, in order to live among us, I say that my struggle is worth it if it allows me to live among this people and reveal to them the God that we serve, the God who came near.

By the way, a fellow Mexico Missionary just sent us a link to an example of the power of “coming near” to an unreached people group. You can check out the video on You Tube

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With the close of the year comes the barrage of top fives, tens, twenties… and while most of the lists are the best of (insert item here). I thought that you’d might enjoy another look at some of our favorite posts over the last year. They may not be the most popular, but they’re definitely worth another look:

In the personal reflection category among my favorites are:

Bicentennial ManOh the Humanity: This personal reflection on the mystery of God’s involvement with our humanness came through a time of prolonged sickness. It’s words continue to ring true especially during this season as we celebrate the incarnation of our Lord.

Tope ThumbnailTopes: With insight into Mexican culture, and cross-cultural ministry in general, this post reminds me that God is in control.

From the out of the ordinary category I would have to note:

Mouse-Shaped Tooth HolderA Visit From the Tooth Mouse: This tongue-in-cheek post presents the Latin alternative to the tooth fairy as well as some of the difficulties we face as we live in the city of Mérida.

Erie Merida ConnectionCoincidence or Confirmation: This post takes you through some of the “coincidences” that we’ve experienced in the journey to the mission field.

In the final missions category three of my favorites include:

Hands ThumbnailConversations: is a reflection on what missions means to this missionary. It’s received a bit of attention, and I hope that it serves to help us, as Byron Klaus says: “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

Antorchista ThumbnailDia de la Virgen and Our Missionary Methods: just happens to be one of my latest offerings. It’s a wondering post, asking questions and providing little in the way of answers, but more than that, it’s an invitation to open discussion about what we’ve done and what we should plan to do as missionaries.

Mun Ha ThumbnailBack with a Story to Tell: is the first in a series of posts that details, day-by-day, the impact of a short term missions trip.

We hope these posts will serve as a representative look back on our year in ministry, while they inspire you to dream, pray, and get involved in what God is doing in you, in your community, and in the world.

Prospero Año Nuevo!

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AntorchistaWe were driving back from a planning meeting in Muna last Tuesday, where we’ll be hosting my brother and his Chi Alpha team, when I noticed, all along the roadway, bikers, runners with torches, and support vehicles flashing their lights and honking their horns. There were hundreds of people in the hour long stretch that we traveled.

It resembled some kind of Olympic procession. It was as if this group was ushering in the torch to light the first ever Yucatan Games, but looking closer I noticed that each one was wearing a t-shirt displaying the symbol of Mexican religious devotion, image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Researching further, I learned from YucatanLiving.com that these “antorchistas” are youth that have made a personal vow to the Virgin, and last week on December 12th, the Day of the Virgin, they ran or biked in order to complete their vow. The trek is a point to point journey, with more favor bestowed for greater distances. Apparently, the bicycle was introduced as a way for the working devotee to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. (Read fewer days off from the job.)

Of course, we have the tendency to dismiss all of this as a misguided devotion, a practice to abandon as pure paganism. Still, one has to admire the determination, the organization, and the passion of those who would exert themselves for their faith. We evangelicals, a group lacking the presence of young men in our congregations, can’t help but ask, “How do we instill this type of enthusiasm, this type of devotion in our faithful?”

I would suggest that the answer lies within the pages of the Bible in the example of our Lord. It would seem that we are more famous for what we don’t do (drinking, smoking, dancing) than for what we do, for what we are against, than what we are for, but Jesus didn’t seem to be this way. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes. What I see from Jesus isn’t a prohibition type religion. I see a radical redefinition of religious and social symbols.

To Peter and Andrew, fishermen by trade, Jesus says follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men. To the woman at the well, Jesus says I am the one who gives living water. At the Last Supper, Jesus redefines the traditional passing of the cup and bread during the Passover meal into a remembrance of his sacrifice on the cross and celebration of the unity that we now have in the Church, the body of Christ on the earth. In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem to separate a person from his or her culture, rather he transforms the culture in much the same way that he transforms the individual.

This to me says that we as missionaries have a need for wisdom and God-given creativity when it comes to engaging a culture. What is truly anti-Christian, and what is simply an expression of culture? How can we contextualize, not just the presentation of the message of the gospel, but also its expression in worship and everyday life?

One case in point of an interesting attempt to accomplish this redemption of culture was in the Chota Valley, a culture of Ecuadorians of African descent. This people group had a dance that utilized a bottle, worn on the head and, if I remember correctly, filled with alcohol. In the bottle would be placed items that represented the pain and suffering that the person experienced in life. Missionary Joe Castleberry and his team, instead of prohibiting this cultural expression, redefined it. Gone was the alcohol and in the place of the symbols of pain and suffering was a flower to represent the new life the Christ brings.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the “Freedom Valley” project first-hand, but I feel that it touches on an area that all missionaries need to consider. Did we do a disservice in our clothes-line style holiness of the 1900s? Have we relegated ourselves to the fringes of society though our lists of rules and prohibitions? How does it come across in the 21st century? On the flip-side, how does this redefinition of culture look, in Africa, in Mexico, in the US? Also, how do we know that we are truly redefining culture and not just compromising for convenience?

Granted, this task is not something that a simple post can solve, nor the work of one individual, but I think discussion is necessary and helpful if we are truly seeking to change the world.

Note: Picture was taken from YucatanLiving.com. (It’s kind of hard to drive and take pictures at the same time.)

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Jonathan BirthdayAbout two weeks ago, (yes, the events of our lives and ministry have taken a toll on my blogging) we celebrated the birthday of our youngest, Jonathan. It was filled with parties–one at school and another here at the house, as well as a mountain of presents, many of which have already made their way to the black hole that our boys call their closet. Of course, all of these things came as no surprise. After celebrating the 19 kids’ parties that we have, from Princess to Bob the Builder to Spider Man to Jungle themes, we’ve come to expect the anticipation, celebration, and sugar withdrawal cycle that each party brings. However, after all of the celebration was over, and Jonathan had time to reflect, he did something unexpected: he decided to testify. In fact it was such a surprise that we didn’t have our camera. The blurry picture was taken with my cell phone.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, testimony night has gone the way of Sunday morning prayer requests in most churches, they’re just not done, but here in Mexico, testimony night is alive and well, and two weeks ago last Sunday a certain recently turned 5 year-old decided to step forward and thank God for another year that God had allowed him to complete.* Not only did he testify, he also sang “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (“Abre mis Ojos, Oh Cristo”) in Spanish.

To me, this is the sign of two things happening:

  1. that our son is rapidly acculturating: Testifying is expected of church members when they celebrate their birthday. That Jonathan noticed this and wanted to do it tells me that he’s becoming more “Mexican.”
  2. that our son is recognizing God as part of his life: It was hard for me to choke back the tears as I listened to our “baby” asking Jesus to help him to truly see Him as he is. It’s my desire as a father to be a part of the the answer to that prayer.

*Spanish idea: We don’t “turn” years old as we celebrate birthdays, we complete years or “cumplemos años” hence the Spanish salutation “Feliz Cumpleaños”

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September marked for us the end of one year of ministry here in the Yucatán, and to celebrate, we brought back a best of disciplemexico.org so that you could revisit some of the highlights of our journey thus far:

Dead of the Dead Thumbnail1. Day of the Dead–Written as a response to a request of an friend, this post is by far our most popular post of the past year, and, with the celebration of this event less than a month away the hits are building again. This piece reveals the difficulty that we have as we try to understand the culture of the Yucatán and their ancient traditions.

Bicentennial Man2. Oh the Humanity!–is a piece I wrote about how God uses our humanness, something very evident to me as I suffered through a prolonged sinus infection, to reveal his perfect power.

Bike Lesson Thumbnail3. Like riding a bicycle–is a family update/reflection on what it is that we do as missionaries. By the way, mastery of the bicycle is something that our kids are still working on. Come to think of it, we’ve still got a lot to learn about missions as well.

Tope Thumbnail4. Topes–Life has a way of springing surprises on you, much like speed bumps that seem to appear when you least expect them on roads here in Mexico, but, as this post suggests, the jolts bring with them valuable learning experiences.

Erie Merida Connection5. Coincidence or Confirmation?–This post about our providential guidance on the way to Mérida generated some lively if not completely related discussion.

As I look through these posts, one thing becomes increasingly clear. The job that we have been called to is not an easy one, but the God that has called us continues to guide and form us so that we can accomplish His work.

Having a six year-old and an eight year-old in the house means that the “Tooth Fairy” regularly comes for a visit. Now, this is not a post on whether or not talking about the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny are worthy or appropriate topics for a Christian Household. I’ll save that for other more in-depth and witty bloggers like Rich Tatum. No this is about the interesting irony that we experienced here in Mexico.

Waiting for the Tooth MouseWhen, Joseph, our six year-old, began feeling his wiggly tooth, he started planning how he was going to spend his money that he would receive from the tooth-fairy. He told friends and church members alike about his wonderful good fortune. However, in the relaying of his news, we found that the country of Mexico is outside of the Tooth Fairy’s jurisdiction. Mexico is the territory of the Tooth Mouse!

Legend says that the Tooth Mouse, possibly created as a story for a celebration of the lost tooth of the then eight year-old Alfonso XIII of Spain, lived in an over-sized cracker box in the palace of the benevolent child-king Bubi I, protector of poor children, and friend to the mouse. This mouse, named Perez, clad in his straw hat, gold-rimmed glasses, and linen shoes, would visit the rooms of rich and poor alike depositing gifts from his red backpack in place of a lost tooth while avoiding the ever-present threat of cats. (Spanish speakers can read the tale here)

The Tooth MouseQuite a tale! Now although the Tooth Mouse in Mexico doesn’t carry the Perez name, and the fineries he once wore have vanished, his tale continues to be told and his face graces the appointment books and literature of dentists throughout the country. Some other details about the mouse have changed as well, and that is where the irony comes in.

Ever since we moved into our house, we’ve had regular visits from real mice. Yes, those cute, furry little rodents that come in from the cold in search of food and a warm place to spend the night. Of course, we don’t have the habit of leaving large cracker boxes lying around, so our mouse had taken a liking to living inside our stove. The small crevices and warmth provided from our gas oven gave it a comfortable if not traditional space to live in.

Mouse TrapNot realizing his mission was to look for teeth, we went to war against this intruder. Our battle against him employed, not the traditional cat, but large sticky pads with cheese as bait. It seems as well, from the picture above, that although the tooth mouse could avoid the cats, he was no match for the modern technology that we employed.

Of course, we were concerned after learning of the story of the tooth mouse, thinking that perhaps we had destroyed a famous legend and source of joy for countless children. Nevertheless, when Joseph’s tooth was placed under his pillow, he found a ten peso coin, roughly the equivalent of one dollar US, in exchange the following day (The tooth mouse respects the tooth fairy’s going rate). It seems, though, as real mice have the tendency to multiply, so the tooth mouse has engendered a number of descendants in order continue his legacy and the joy that he has brought to many here in Latin America.

So watch out Tooth Fairy! As America’s population turns decidedly more Latin, you may find yourself giving way to this equally benevolent, highly intelligent, and rapidly reproducing Spanish legend.

Topes

TopeThe roads in Mexico are a pleasant surprise compared to the deteriorated byways that we had gotten used to in Costa Rica. We have a wonderfully paved road outside of our home, and it has been some time since I’ve had to swerve like a slalom skier to avoid ramming one of our wheels in a pothole. However, what makes the Mexican driving experience unique are the “topes” (pronounced tow-pays)

Topes are the Mexican version of speed bumps, although an American speed bump can’t hold a candle to a tope. Usually taller than they are wide, they’ll give you a bone-shattering shock if you happen to hit one unawares, bringing about a tongue-lashing from any passenger who just might be in your car. Believe me, it only takes one or two of those experiences to learn to slow down when driving, especially through small towns and neighborhoods.

The big problem with topes is that they are usually in the oddest places. From time to time, you can find them before a busy intersection or at a school or church crossing, but often they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the diamond shaped indication signs usually only give you a few feet of warning before your vehicle crashes into the unforgiving mound of resistance.

Topes, though, have a much larger meaning for the missionary or ex-patriot. The tope signifies the unexpected resistance that we experience as we continue in our work of cultural assimilation. Cruising along a comfortable speed, making strides in language, food, and relationships, inevitably we face topes that remind us that the land that we are in, although each day more familiar, is truly foreign.

We’ve been in Mexico almost 8 months now, and we are comfortably eating the yucatecan food, speaking more aporreado (what is referred to as the yucatecan accent), and building friendships with people in and outside of the church community, but we still experience our topes. Mine most recently has been in the form of our front yard.

Formerly working an 8-5 job in the states, I prided myself with the ability to keep up my front yard. I mowed regularly, trimmed the bushes and spread fertilizer in the spring and fall. Not given to excesses, except one post-season when I mowed the Yankees interlocking NY in the grass, I still felt satisfied in having a green, presentable garden.

Remembering all of this, I fell in love with the small, manageable green space that our current house gave me. I had visions of “working the land” again, and looked forward to the wealth of sermon illustrations that this labor of love would afford me, but the more I got involved in the day to day hustle and bustle of being a missionary in Mexico, the less and less time I had to devote to keeping up the garden.

So, by chance, I happened to find a gardener who could help me at least trim our trees. At less than $17 American, it was a deal that I couldn’t afford to pass up. Then came the tope. Unable to find the same gardener, I asked for a recommendation from our landlord. I contracted one of the two he recommended to trim our trees, this time for what I thought would amount to about $20. The bone-shattering shock came, however, when I realized, after the work was done, that it was to be $20 for each tree. Ouch!

Determined not to fall into the same mistake, but still needing a gardener more than ever, I contacted one after comparing the quotes of our neighbor’s gardener and one other who works in the neighborhood. We were needing help for our heat suffering grass and weed infested flowerbeds. After having negotiated what I thought was a good price, I let him go to work, but soon into the labor, I began to find the hidden costs, $20 more for extra insecticide, $70 for more plants, etc. Can someone say “TOPE!”

We expect blockades in ministry. We anticipate the frustrations that we may have to face in communicating our heart in a foreign tongue, but I guarantee that problems with the care of my front lawn never even entered into my mind. Like topes these complications hit me unexpectedly.

Still, I have to say I’m thankful for my tope experiences. Although they’ve been painful, they’ve slowed me down enough to think about my life and work. They’ve proven to me time and time again, that Dave Godzwa alone can’t get the job done. There needs to be someone else involved with a higher perspective, one who can guide us through even the unexpected situations.

So, although I’m sure that I’ll continue to feel the bumps along this road of cultural assimilation, I’ll thank God for them because I know that they’ll slow me down enough to refocus my vision on Him–the one who’s mapping my course, and who just happens to know where those topes are.

Photo Credits:

Above: Members of the Chi Alpha Spring Break Missions Team, Julia, Bethany, Ashley and Kelsey spell tope while standing on one. Photo by Bethany Chroniger

In article description: A photo of a common tope warning sign.

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