An Advent resurrection

The bus driven by a church elder and presbytery treasurer picked me up at 6 p.m. What should have been an hour-long drive took nearly three, fighting the traffic past three shopping malls during Christmas shopping season. (Black Friday sales have been one unfortunate export from the United States to Central America.) We picked up pastors and church elders along the two-lane highway out of town, where capital city hillsides blanketed with adobe and block houses stacked three high gave way to cattle grazing and pine-forest sawmills. We were on our way to Guaimaca, home of the first Presbyterian church of Honduras, named Bethel, to a velorio, or wake, for the wife of the pastor. She had died earlier that afternoon.

The velorio for Ursula de Flores, wife of Cristobal Flores, pastor of Bethel Church in Guaimaca, Honduras

Hers was not the first funeral I had attended in Honduras. The first was on Easter Sunday of 2018. The mother of the presbytery moderator had died the day before. The family had already gathered, as holy week is a vacation holiday for most Hondurans. The Catholic sister giving the homily at the Easter mass deftly interwove the message of the Resurrection with the message of resurrection that all Christians hope for in death. Then the coffin was carried in the presbytery moderator’s pickup truck from the Catholic church to the cemetery, where the protestant family members said their piece.

The second was for the brother of a pastor. Again the family had gathered for a 24-hour vigil, with burial to take place the following day. I showed up in the last hour, joining the procession of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery, transporting a group of kids who had been up all night watching their parents mourn.

The third was also for the wife of a pastor. I traveled with several pastors from the city to the rural mountaintop town, joining the family at the church, and giving the homily, then walking the mile to the cemetery, watching from afar as the family buried their matriarch.

Now, in the first week of Advent, my fourth Honduran funeral, the second to occur during a major religious holiday. As we drove out of town, I watched all the shopping mall traffic from the bus window. I thought back to that Easter Sunday service a year-and-a-half prior.

When I was a hospice and hospital chaplain in the United States, I counseled many families and patients on how to plan for their funerals. Many times I heard the request, “I don’t want a lot of fuss. No service. No big to-do. Just put me in the ground.” I also had patients who had pre-written their own obituaries, pre-paid their funerals, kept up-to-date portraits that were just realistic enough and just flattering enough to look appropriate at the funeral. I had a Mexican-American patient once who joked that instead of paying to transport her body back to Mexico, her family should just prop her up with sunglasses and a drink in the passenger seat of their car, Weekend at Bernie’s-style.

I wonder how some of those patients might have reacted to an unplanned Easter Sunday funeral mass. I thought of some of my own family members, my grandfather, for example, whose ashes spent about five years in a box in my grandmother’s closet before he was buried. There was a funeral at the Nebraska church he pastored, I think, but I was young and don’t remember it. I was old enough to remember the trip we took to his burial in the middle of the Arizona desert. Cousins who had never known my grandfather had joined the family by then. It was during summer, when everyone was out of school, I’m sure, and it was convenient to gather the family in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Actually, I have more than one family member whose cremated remains are in boxes in their next-of-kin’s cupboards, awaiting the right time, or the right gathering, or the right feelings. This fact was rather shocking for my Honduran friends when I told them.

As we drove up to the church in Guaimaca, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that the church was celebrating a posada, the Catholic pageant enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for room at the inn in Bethlehem. A giant tent had been set up at the church entrance. Chairs lined the walls of the sanctuary and overflowed into the street under the tent. People came and went freely, paying their respects to various family members and friends. Seemingly out of thin air but actually from the mourning family’s next-door kitchen, small plates of chicken and rice were produced. Even though I politely declined—I had already eaten dinner—my refusal was politely declined; I ate. Trays of coffee, soda, and sweet bread were passed around. Dozens, maybe hundreds, were served that night. We ate chicken, with the open casket, the 50-year-old portrait of the church matriarch on a table surrounded by offerings of bouquets and wreaths of flowers.

This is just how it’s done in Honduras. No matter when a person dies, the family comes, the friends gather, the velorio takes 24 hours, or 48 if the family members are especially far away, or especially wealthy. Then they are buried. Easter Sunday or not. In the middle of the Christmas season or not.

In a way, this is a result of a culture that is less inclined to strict and detailed planning, complicated liturgical calendars, the written word. This culture is oral, in the moment. My U.S. culture is on one hand rather more rigid and documented, but on the other hand, rather lacking in knowing just how to do things when the time comes. At Ursula’s velorio, there were no grand speeches, no liturgy, no hymns. The simple funeral service would have been spare. Prayers, songs, a homily, and more prayer, then food.

I didn’t know Ursula well. I met her a handful of times in the past two years, and each time I prayed with her for comfort in her final days, relief from pain and suffering, and strength to go on, if that is God’s will. I never asked her about her funeral plans. She wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it, I’m sure. But then, there was nothing for her to plan. There is just what is done: A simple gathering. A simple meal. A simple message of the resurrection that comes after grief.  

“I will feel very lonely when I go home,” said Ursula’s husband, pastor Cristobal Flores. “Thank you for your prayers. I need God’s strength.”

The harvest of God’s love

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Looking over the Comayagua valley from the road leaving El Horno.

An Advent reflection on Philippians 1:3-11, written for San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Pastor Juan Rodas, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras, loves to tell the story of how two remote congregations, El Horno and El Sute, joined the denomination. The communities of these churches are at the top of a mountain in the department of Comayagua, Honduras. They are so remote, so small, and so economically poor that the utilities that built electric transmission lines overhead, crossing the mountaintop, didn’t bother to connect the communities to the lines. Most residents are of indigenous Lenca descent and are farmers, of coffee, mostly, and of corn, beans, and other staples. There are roads, but not good ones, so most people walk, or if they’re well-off, ride mules or horses. It’s a five-hour walk to the nearest paved road.

When Pastor Juan began visiting, the churches had already been established, but they were hoping for more connection and were seeking to join a larger denomination. Pastor Juan and his colleagues had visited several times to assess the viability of the tiny communities joining the Presbyterian denomination. At a meeting of the denomination’s board, they had decided that the communities were, sadly, too remote and would stretch the small denomination too thinly. At the time there were only about 20 congregations nationwide. The denomination’s leaders couldn’t imagine committing to the pastoral presence needed in such a remote place.

Pastor Juan and his father-in-law, Pastor Edin Samayoa, arrived in El Horno after walking five or six hours, with the intention of informing the congregations’ leadership of the decision. Some church elders sat and had coffee with the pastors and related the story of how their churches came to be. The missionaries who came to evangelize years prior had been from a larger denomination. They had spent the time they needed to preach the gospel in the towns, but when it came time for the churches to become independent, the missionaries left, saying they couldn’t join the larger denomination because the communities “no son rentables.” In English: The communities weren’t profitable. They wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and effort of a larger denomination. El Horno and El Sute were drains on the resources of the missionaries.

When Pastor Juan tells this story, he nearly always has tears in his eyes. He says that he changed his mind on the spot and couldn’t see his way to telling the dedicated Christians of El Sute and El Horno that they weren’t worth his time. Pastors Edin and Juan returned to the leadership of the denomination with the news that they had two new congregations. “What? I thought we decided the opposite!” they protested.

God’s call to us is not one of economy or feasibility, Pastor Juan says. God’s call to us is one of abundant and merciful love. We are called not to the places in the world that are profitable, but to the places in the world where there is need of love.

I love the affection that Paul shows for the church in Philippi; it reminds me of Pastor Juan’s affection for El Horno and El Sute. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” How telling that the harvest he speaks of is not of financial or demographic increase but of righteousness, glory, and praise.

After 10 or 15 years, the churches of El Sute and El Horno are shining examples of community cooperation and unity. They are represented in the denomination’s leadership. They have collaborated with U.S. Presbyterians and local Roman Catholic families to install solar panels and water purification systems in their communities. The students they send to the denomination’s theological education programs are the most dedicated and studious. The presence of the churches has helped encourage investment in coffee and food production rather than in illegal drugs. Family unity and cohesion has increased.

El Horno and El Sute are examples of the transformative power of God’s love.

Waiting, groaning for the world to turn

Adapted from a reflection written for San Francisco Theological Seminary during Advent 2017.

A response to Romans 8:22-27, and the hymn Canticle of the Turning.

Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.

I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.

The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.

I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?

As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.

A song of ascents by the migrant laborer

an Advent devotion based on Psalm 126

When we had the good fortune to cross safely into this land, O God, we became dreamers. We laughed with relief, with optimism, and ironically with fear, knowing that the wrong word upon our tongues could end in deportation and undoing.

Those in other nations looked upon us with envy, believing us to be saved, but suddenly we knew in our flesh that it was not yet true. Some of us are still missing. We dream of our grandmothers, sons, nephews, sisters, husbands, grandbabies, back in the land where we were born but don’t belong.

We rejoice because we may now remit and save and feed the flesh of our torn flesh, the bone of our broken bones.  We praise God for our safety. And we plead for theirs.

Restore us, O God. Make us a whole family. Be like the waters of the Rio Grande, so long absent, suddenly bursting forth, washing away the sins and the hurts and the fences, and soaking the soil and renewing life.

May we who sow their fields with our tears then reap with shouts of joy.

May all families who go out weeping, bearing the seeds of dreams, return home with shouts of joy, carrying their own babies, feeding their own families, kissing their own lovers, embracing their own flesh.

A meditation on Advent of the gospel

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 (NRSV)

How beautiful is the messenger who brings the gospel. Who is the messenger in our Christian nativity story? John the son of Elizabeth, who comes before to announce the Christ. The angel Gabriel, who brings the message to Mary, blessed among women. Mary herself, the literal bearer of good news. The starlight dancing on the mountains, leading shepherds and magi to the birthplace.

In our Christmas carols, we ourselves are the bearers of the news: “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!” Later on in the Christian story, the apostle Paul will write of the gospel in ways that make me think that Christ, Immanuel, is both the message and the messenger. The news the messenger brings is not just notice of peace, but peace itself. The message has transformative, blessing power.

We know of moments like this in our own lives. Moments when knowledge touches not only our minds but our hearts and very bodies. They are moments of sickening tragedy, when we learn of the death of dozens of innocents in a senseless school shooting. They are moments of tender care, when our sister or brother comes out of the closet and the life of our family is never the same. They are moments of empowered solidarity, when a marginalized group stands up and proclaims justice and peace. They are moments of soaring joy, when the news of a baby’s birth, long awaited, changes the world, and hope enters in.