With a big smile on her face, Veronica shows me her new Salvadoran ID card. It’s called a DUI, and we have worked together for over 3 years to get this document. You see, Veronica was one of those “persons without a country,” as she was not registered for a birth certificate when she was born. She had no legal status growing up, so she was unable to attend the public school. At any time, she faced arrest and deportation for being undocumented, and she was unable to apply for a job.
In an effort to correct this problem, together we visited numerous government offices, social service agencies, and the hospital where she was born, wading through red tape and enduring ambiguous promises from government officials. No one seemed able to resolve her problem, and at times we felt our prayers to God on the matter were falling on deaf ears.
As if that were not enough, one day I got a call that Veronica had been detained while trying to get a background check, and that she would have to spend at least 5 days in jail. I immediately cancelled my commitments and went down to the police station to take charge of her two kids, praying with her before she was escorted off to the courthouse. I followed, deeply concerned about her spending time in jail where there was a risk of her being abused or raped. At the very least, her kids had never been without her, and the youngest, Gabriel, had just turned three.
After the judge’s staff had assured me that there was no way she would be let out in my custody, I went back home dejected. I began to pray, asking the Lord to spare Veronica this trial, for her sake and that of her children. “Lord, we need a miracle,” I said. “Everyone assures me there is no way they are going to let her go free today, but I am asking that you make it happen.”
To my astonishment, I received a call about an hour later, directly from the judge. “We are going to let Veronica go,” he said, “though she will have to appear in court at the appointed time. She needs someone who can pick her up. Can you come?” The Lord had answered my prayer with a miracle! “I’m on my way!” I eagerly replied!
Now looking at Veronica’s broad smile and seeing her excitement, I am glad that God was with us throughout this long process. I might have wished that it had not taken so long or been so arduous a process, yet I see that Veronica has learned some very important lessons along the way. She has become more empowered. She has learned patience and perseverance. She has learned to be proactive, and how to depend on God for everything.
“What I learned from the study of Ruth is that in spite of the problems we have in this world we need to carry on, even if we don’t have anyone to love us, God will never abandon us and He is the one who rescues us. I know that one day I will change and be a good woman like Naomi or Ruth.”
These are the words of Blanca, imprisoned with her child in the Quetzaltepeque prison with other female gang members. We had just finished a study of the book of Ruth, learning about how God brought Ruth out of a life of idolatry, and blessed her for her unwavering commitment to her mother-in-law and to God. The women giggled when I told them that this was the best “chick flick” ever, and we speculated about Boaz, the romantic hero in the story. We studied Boaz and the Israelite practice of having a male family member as “redeemer,” someone to rescue, protect, care for and provide for a widow. They listened intently to the words of Boaz to Ruth when he said, “May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”
“You too, can take refuge under God’s wings,” I urged them. “We all have a redeemer in Jesus Christ, one who loves us even if there is no one else in the world to love us. He rescues, protects, provides and cares for us better than any human being ever could.
Please pray for these precious women, many of whom feel forgotten and unloved, rejected by society and their families. When I look into their eyes, I see the image of God as we are all created to be.
In a show of power, gang members threw the city of San Salvador into turmoil this morning, after declaring that all bus lines should cease giving service or drivers would face the consequences. People were packed on the sides of the roads, trying to get transport to work. Very few buses were out and about, and in the course of the day, 6 bus drivers were killed in different parts of the city while attempting to maintain service. We were counting them as they came through one by one on the internet news pages. The sixth happened near my church when 2 underaged gang members shot and killed a mini-van driver.
Businesses closed early, in an effort to assist their workers with the transportation problem, and individuals with pick-up trucks began to give private transport service, packing in as many as could fit in each vehicle. The few buses and mini-vans that were running were also packed to the gills, with people hanging outside the doors with just one foot on the step.
This kind of attack on the overall society will affect the nation’s economy, particularly if it lasts for many days. While some businesses will suffer, my thoughts are with those very poor families who have a single working member supporting the rest. They do not have the luxury of missing one day, or even one hour of work. Their paychecks will be reduced, and their families will go hungry.
What’s next? No one knows. Uncertainty and fear is in the air, and things are definitely heating up. Yesterday I was in a community to do a pastoral visit and as I prepared to leave, 7-8 gang members came racing past my car with their weapons drawn. One stopped to stash his gun under a parked car. As I drove out of the community, 6 police on motorcycles headed down after them. I wondered how it would all turn out.
This morning I was in a cyber café getting some documents scanned, when the young Christian teenager who runs it struck up a conversation with me. “What can we do?” he asked, “in such a situation?”
“We need to pray,” I told him, “and not get discouraged in our effort to bring the message of love to this society. We need to remember that we are the Children of the Light, the hope of this world.” I was referring to one of my favorite verses, Colossians 1:27 which ends with, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
As Christians, we believe in God’s sovereignty and protection, yet this does not mean we are immune from the consequences of human beings’ sinful behavior around us. I am reminded of what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, to the King Nebuchadnezzar as he prepared to throw them into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3). “We do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. [Here comes the good part] But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”
These three incredibly faithful men made it clear to the king that they trusted God completely with their lives. As Children of the Light, we need to show that same trust in our Sovereign God, our Heavenly Father who cares for us more than any human person can, even if He chooses to allow our earthly life to be taken from us.
And, we need to exhibit the same boldness that Shadrach and his friends demonstrated. The gang leaders here want people to fear them, to tremble in obedience and bow down to their “gods” of power and authority. We cannot give in. We must continue to exhibit the way of love; the way that Jesus taught His disciples, as detailed in the Gospels; the way that the Holy Spirit continues to teach us as we walk in faith and obedience to God.
Today in my English class at the youth center, we studied Mark 14:34, when Jesus goes up to the olive grove called Gethsemane to pray before His arrest and crucifixion. He shares with His disciples, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” So great is His agony that Jesus asks the Father to take away the suffering He is to experience, and yet He submits Himself ultimately to the Father. “Yet may Your will be done, not Mine.”
I imagine that we can never fully understand the depth of despair that Jesus experienced in this moment. Throughout His life and ministry, Jesus had never before asked the Father to change the course set out for Him. Clearly Jesus was in great anguish, and yet He chose to surrender to God and God’s plan for saving all of humanity.
This same Jesus told His disciples, “I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give” (John 14:27).
Here in El Salvador we are in great need of peace as we experience daily an environment in which fear and violence are prevalent. Two weeks ago there was a marked increase in the violence, supposedly a retaliation for imprisoned gang leaders being put into lock-down. The Medical Examiner of San Salvador declared that they did not have enough room for all of the bodies.
The murder rate has climbed back up to 15-16 per day, in this country the size of Massachusetts, and gang members have now begun attacking police stations with grenades. Policemen and women are at great risk, and even their families are targeted. The greatest risk is for Salvadoran male teens, many of whom are not involved in the gang warfare, but whom may be mistaken for gang members or may be targeted because of a refusal to join the local gang.
Recently the 17-year-old son of a policeman was kidnapped, tortured, murdered and cut into pieces by gang members near the house of one of my missionary friends. Word has it that this killing was a gang initiation ritual. While cases like this are not uncommon, this one has troubled my heart greatly, and I keep on thinking about the immense pain and anguish that the boy went through, and that his parents are now suffering from.
For several months now, I have been going through security checks and pat downs every Thursday, not in the airport but as I enter and leave Mariona prison. It’s a bothersome process, but well worth it when I consider the men inside waiting for the English Bible Study.
Mariona houses some 5,000 inmates in a facility built for 800, so conditions are deplorable. The overcrowding in each cell means that men sleep in tiers of hammocks strung up like spider webs.
There is a growing number of deportees, men who grew up in the States and whose primary language and culture is English. Those who end up in Mariona find themselves in a culture and environment completely foreign to them. They long for their home culture and language, and some struggle to learn Spanish in this adverse environment.
Take Danny for example, a regular attender of the Bible Study, given 4 years for a parole violation. He began coming because he prefers to speak English and was invited by a fellow deportee. He became so fascinated by the story of David that he read through both 1st and 2nd Samuel on his own, and could recount to me all of the major events of the story. Though his friends make fun of him reading the Bible, he continues to come and is considering making a decision to follow Jesus Christ.
I chose the story of King David, using Eugene Peterson’s excellent book entitled, Leap Over a Wall as a guide because I knew these men could identify with someone who desired to follow God but who also committed sins for which he suffered dearly.
One morning Danny’s eyes lit up as we were discussing Peterson’s quote, “Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see.”
“Can I have a copy of that quote?” he asked eagerly, as if he had just discovered a treasure.
I shared with the men in the study that the horrid conditions in which they live are only a portion of their reality; that their inner spiritual and mental life, attitudes and actions make up a larger portion of their lives. In spite of their current situation, I pointed out that they can be a part of the larger spiritual battle that occurs daily by returning good for evil and choosing peace over violence, letting God fight their battles for them as David did.
Ernesto, a pastor who is in for 7 years because he purchased a stolen vehicle without knowing it was stolen, spoke up excitedly. “That’s true!” he said. “I had a big problem this week. Someone set me up and the men told me they were going to beat me up the next day. I was so scared, I spent all night praying, asking God to help me. The next day they found out I had been set up, and so I was safe. God protected me.”
Each time I go into Mariona, I am impressed with the earnestness of these men, as they open their minds and hearts to the study. In the Bible they find men and women who, like all of us, are flawed but through whom God accomplishes His good and perfect purposes. I thank God that He is bringing about a transformation of their lives through the lessons found in His Word.
To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory.
Life is hard, for everybody. There is no getting around that, and how we deal with the challenges of living in this sin-broken world determines whether or not we will live victoriously or be defeated. I see the brokenness all around me, and I have lived it. I have often told my friends, “I have already lived the worst day of my life, so now I can live freely, without fear.”
Before Bryan died, I would say that I had experienced hardship, but I had not yet been fully broken. I lived for God, but held onto my own way of living. I had not yet experienced what it means to surrender all to Christ, learning to depend fully on Him for my life.
I believe that sooner or later we all come to this point; to the end of ourselves and the beginning of brokenness. Once that happens in our lives, we have a choice. Either we can turn away from God, hanging on to bitterness and resentment, and live an angry joyless life; or we can turn towards God, to the One who is able to restore us to a life full of joy and beauty, to the Resurrected One who made this restoration possible.
I have seen this happen in the lives and testimonies of many of my Christian brothers and sisters, both here in El Salvador and the United States. I have witnessed and experienced in my own life the “beauty for ashes” that Isaiah describes, and the turning of despair into joy.
That joy comes in small and big packages for me: when I see the limitless beauty of God’s creation in the exotic flowers and plant life of El Salvador; when I catch the eye of one of the youth and we are able to share a wink or a reassuring smile; when the Pastor and I are able to have a few minutes of relaxation, sharing our stories, laughter and the occasional joke.
People have sometimes imagined that I wear rose-colored glasses, however I would present another point of view. I have seen the evil in this world. I have seen the effects of the wickedness of the human heart, in my own and in others. I am no stranger to sorrow. Every time I hear of another teen who has been cut down before ever finding out what it means to really live, I immediately think of the weeping and wailing mothers who are losing their children daily.
The difference for me is that I believe that God is greater than all of this hate, sorrow and wickedness we see around us. I see everywhere His hand moving to restore, uphold, encourage, bless and reverse the negative effects of sin. I see it in big and little ways, in the restoration of a young man who has left the world of alcohol behind, and the touch of a cool breeze on a hot day.
I feel such gratitude for how He is working in my own life and in the lives of those around me to demonstrate the incredible power of love. And though I am able to see my own weaknesses all too clearly, and sometimes those of others, I choose to love. I choose to hang on to the One who loved me while I was still holding Him at bay, unsure of what it meant to lean fully on Him. This is why I can smile and laugh, and enjoy the beauty in the midst of the ashes.
James McCray and Thomas Lane of the Anointed Ex-Offenders (AEO) came to El Salvador this past month together with Pastor Jack Weber for a rigorous week of ministry with their special gifts of song, dance, beat-box and testimony. They delighted kids in the Christ For the City International soccer schools, and people in a poor community near the railroad tracks.
The team helped to inaugurate the new youth center in Pedregal, a small sweatshop town located 45 minutes southeast of San Salvador. Prior to the event, they met with 14 members of the local gang, to share their testimonies and enjoy a meal together, arranged by the pastor of the local church. The gang members opened up and even smiled to see Thomas’ dancing and beat-box routine as James sang, “Lord, you’ve been so faithful!” Pastor Jack spoke to the crowd about the importance of ministering to youth. The inauguration drew some 100-120 people to the town square, in front of the youth center.
The AEO gave an open-air concert which drew more than 600 people to a park in a gang-controlled area. The event featured a local break dance group, as well as a Christian beat-box artist. The crowd cheered as they watched the AEO members dance, sing, and beat-box. Local churches were invited and prepared to pray with attendees. There were 12-15 people who expressed a desire to follow Christ.
The group also was able to do prison ministry at 3 different facilities in the San Salvador area: the Juvenile Detention Center, the Women’s Prison and the Mariona Men’s prison. In each place we met with the “body of Christ within the walls,”believers who decided to follow Christ after being incarcerated. A group of 14 teen boys in the Juvenile Detention Center have formed a church they call “City of Refuge.” They were very pleased by the visit. “Not many come to see us, “they said.
In addition, the team sang and preached at 3 churches, the Central Cathedral and a Christian school. It was a very rewarding time, and the team went home weary, but pleased to be a part of God’s work in El Salvador!
This day encourages me to reflect on the truths found in the Bible about resurrection and life after death. After Bryan died, I had so many questions and few answers, but one thing I have always been assured of is that Bryan knew where he was going. I know this because of a single word he wrote in the margins of his bible. Bryan was not one to write or even highlight in his Bible, so this word stood out like a light in the darkness, a bold statement of what he believed and what I also am convinced of: that those who look to Jesus Christ as Lord and King will, after leaving this world, experience His glory with all those who believe, whether they have come to this understanding early in life, or have finally accepted Christ’s authority after long years of personal struggle and alienation from God.
Sometime after Bryan died, as I was working through deep grief over his going away, I came across this word he had written in his Bible. He wrote it next to the final phrase of John 6:40, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Next to this, Bryan wrote the word, “resurrection.”
Finding this in his Bible brought me great comfort and served as an acknowledgement to me that Bryan knew that his death from this world would mean entrance into a new life in the presence of God. His illness overcame his ability to manage in this world, so he went on to the next.
N.T. Wright, the well-known British theologian and scholar, studies the theology of resurrection in his book, Surprised by Hope. He expounds on the early Jewish and Christian ideas about resurrection, as well as contemporary ones, and examines them from a Biblical point of view. He debunks the many erroneous concepts within the Christian and wider world about death, resurrection and heaven.
Wright demonstrates that the Christian hope after death is not one of a disembodied spirit which resides in a utopian place somewhere “out there,” but rather is one of a bodily resurrection and eventual renewal and restoration of the earth. Just as Christ was resurrected as the “firstborn” of a new covenant, God will also provide bodily resurrection for those who accept his free gift of redemption, and “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21).”
Dr. Wright explains, “My proposition is that the traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage post-mortem journey (with or without the option of some kind of purgatory or continuing journey as an intermediate stage) represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story we tell about God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working. Instead of talking vaguely about heaven and then trying to fit the language of resurrection into that, we should talk with Biblical precision about the resurrection and reorganize our language about heaven around that.”
Regarding heaven, he writes, “heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God so that the ´riches in heaven’ simply means ‘riches in God’s presence…’
The hope that Bryan had, and that I have, along with all those who believe in God’s promises as given in the Bible, is that we will be resurrected to live in God’s presence and enjoy a fully renewed creation.
I know that I will see my beloved Bryan again one day, and that gives me much comfort. But more than that, I know I have the promise of living together with him and the many other people whom I love, who have gone before me and will go after me, into God’s presence.
Recently I preached at an evening service of a Baptist church in the neighboring city of Soyapango on Luke 10:25-37. I retold the story in this passage in a modern Salvadoran context:
A Salvadoran businessman was going from San Salvador to Soyapango, and was at a bus stop when a gang attacked him, robbing him of everything, including his clothing. They beat him and left him for dead. By chance, a pastor passed along the same road on his way to an evangelization campaign, but when he saw what had happened he thought, “I had better stay away, or the gang will also go after me.” He moved away from the businessman, and went along his way.
Soon after, a theologian arrived at the bust stop, and when he saw the man he thought, “This man is likely a troublemaker. He probably had a fight with the gang members and so they assaulted him. This is his own fault, and so I better not interfere.” He got on the next bus and went on.
But a poor man with ripped jeans and no shoes soon came along. He was collecting plastic bottles and aluminum soda cans to make a few pennies by recycling what he could find. When he saw them beaten man, he felt compassion. He approached him and gave him clean water from the bottle he always carried in his backpack. He removed his shirt and tore it into strips to make bandages, which he used to stop the bleeding where the beaten man was wounded. Then, leaving his collection of recycling that had taken all day to collect, he lifted the man onto his shoulders, carried him to the closest clinic, and stayed until the doctors could attend to the man. Later, this poor man went to his makeshift tin shack and took the recycling money he had earned over the course of 2 days, which would have provided his food for the week. He went to the clinic and gave it to the doctor telling him, “This is to pay for my friend’s medicine and care, and if the bill goes higher than that, I will pay the balance when I return.”
Well, which of those three do you think became a neighbor of the man assaulted by gang members?
In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenged his audience by making the hero of the story a man rejected by society, considered dirty, and unpleasant. In the story God uses a man that society doesn’t value to save the beaten man. Is it possible that we all have a tendency to think like those who heard this story from Jesus? What biases do we have against people who are worthy in God’s eyes? Although we may feel that certain people are unlikeable, disgraceful or unworthy, Jesus loves everyone, even when they are still slaves to their own selfish sinful ways.
After telling the story, Jesus gives the mandate to “Go and do the same.”
How can we become like the Good Samaritan? I want to propose a couple of things we can do that sound simple, but in practice are very difficult:
1) Learn to see through “God’s eyes,” seeing every human being as a creature of God, worthy to receive salvation and so worthy of my respect.
2) With this attitude, love to others as Jesus commanded, paying special attention to people who are devalued by society, wounded, the people who need healing, food, a home, love.
We so easily fall into the sin of being too busy, prioritizing our own needs and interest, and so these opportunities pass us by, as they did the Levite and the priest. But Jesus calls us to be Samaritans; calls us to leave aside our own agenda when we see a person in need, and do what is within our reach to help. This is how we must love our neighbor.