Scott's Entry #15

"Confessions Of A Substitute Preacher"

Gabby thought it would be a good idea to begin this journal entry with a true/false quiz. It’s kind of like a game-show on the web, only without the peppy theme song and host with a really big hair. However, we could insert a picture of me from high school that would cover the “host with really big hair” part.

Anyhow, here were her suggestions:

1. True or False: Scott and Gabby have indoor plumbing and bathe more than twice per week.

2. True or False: Scott and Gabby sleep together every night in a twin bed in the middle of an adobe room, with a plastic bucket nearby which serves as an emergency toilet on cold, rainy nights.

Riding to Guineales in the back of the pickup with my new "ChiPs" sunglasses and my babushka wife

3. True or False: Scott and Gabby would think it is a good idea to voluntarily ride for 6 hours in the back of a scalding hot pickup truck to visit a remote church in the hottest area of Guatemala so that Scott (who, incidentally, is not a pastor) could preach a sermon in Spanish to a group of people that primarily speak the ancient Mayan language of Quiché. As an encore, they are required to sing duets in Spanish and Quiché.

 

Here is the answer key, so you can see how you did.

1. False

2. True

3. True

 

So how did you do? If you missed a couple, don’t fret. The answers are like a moving target. Nine months ago, you could have answered the exact opposite and been absolutely correct. So, we’ll issue your lovely parting gift when we get back to the states. Rest assured, your year’s supply of Turtle Wax and Rice-A-Roni is in the mail.

So… what is the point of all this? Sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t one. However, allow me to expand upon question number 3 while you sit in your air-conditioned cubicle reading this journal entry and pretending to work.

Also, please excuse the cultural insensitivity of this journal entry.  While we deeply care for the people of Guatemala, that doesn't change the fact that we have lived in the U.S. for over 30 years, so we still have knee-jerk reactions to certain experiences that are outside of our comfort zone.  I only wish to share with you an honest account of our time here.

Hanging Out With Pastor Juan Ixmata

Three months ago, Juan Ixmata, the pastor in the village of Guineales asked me if I would come and preach to his congregation. It was a flattering offer. I was humbled by his request. However, I had to let him down easy. 

I told him, “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not a pastor.” 

His reply?

“That’s not important.”

So, it was settled. He told me he would like me to come and preach on April 11th.  I agreed. Later I found out that April 11th was Easter. When I saw the pastor again, I said, 

“Did you know that the 11th is Easter Sunday?  You probably would like to preach to your own people that day, since it’s so important.” 

He responded by saying, “Nah… that’s OK. You go ahead and preach.”

My attempt to get out of this task was foiled. The good news was, as preaching topics go, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives a guy a lot to talk about. It’s not like having to preach about the those "who begat whom" Bible verses, or worse yet, those depressing passages about plagues of locusts and such. I’m guessing that for a pastor, getting to preach the Easter Sunday sermon is like getting to be the guy who calls lottery winners.  Everybody is happy to hear the good news you have to tell!

I envisioned myself preaching to this group of people. Who would I want to be like? Jimmy Swaggart? Billy Graham? The priest from “The Princess Bride”? Or better yet, Arsenio Hall from “Coming to America?” I decided that it would be best to leave impersonations aside and just try to get the point across.

When I sat down to write, I realized that I had quite a challenge ahead. How could I say anything that would make a difference to these people?!  I'm facing an uphill battle here, with lots of problems.  The first is, I’m not a preacher (have I mentioned that yet?). The second, when speaking Spanish, I have the vocabulary of a kindergartener.  In my mind, I wanted to say very flowery things to inspire the people of Guineales.  For example, something like:

"Two thousand years ago, Jesus faced unbelievable trials, suffering persecution and prejudice at the hands of strangers.  They beat him and mocked him, driving his dignity to the dust.  Today, the people of Guatemala face similar suffering, feeling as if their situation will never improve.  However, we only have to remember Easter Sunday to see that hope outlasts despair, and one day we will rise again to new life.  The Resurrection is real - a miracle that proves that you too can conquer mountains and overcome unbelievable obstacles."

However, with my kindergarten Spanish, this comes out as...

"A really big time ago, bad people done mean things to Jesus.  Today, you see mean people and bad things.  The bad no get better to you.  Remember the day with the bunny and candy that gives hope.  We live twice.  Good man no die.  He live to climb big hill that no believe you." 

Pass the offering plate!  

Luckily, I have an awesome Spanish dictionary, and some very helpful host brothers and sisters.  Together, we put together a good 15 minute rendition of your favorite Easter message.  Tack on a song or two, and I could fill twenty minutes!  Yee Haw!  The only problem is that Guatemalan preachers typically go for about 45 minutes to an hour.  Being that I had used every single Spanish word I knew (and then some) for the sermon, the only way I could fill that time was to read the thing four times.  Rather than bore the congregation, I decided I would just get it over with quickly, so they could all have some free time.

Easter Sunday came, and I was all ready to go.  However, when my big moment finally came, my ride didn't.  The car that was supposed to drive us to Guineales broke down.  We waited for an hour and a half before giving up.  It was a little disappointing.  Still, the pastor was very understanding and invited me to come back on May 9th.  As it turns out, May 9th was Mother's Day.  It looks like I got the nod to preach on yet another holiday.  In all honesty, I thought Mother's Day was just a U.S. thing, but apparently they’re going global with this whole idea of setting aside a day to honor the woman who didn’t stuff you into a car trunk and leave you for dead when you were going through your “teen angst” phase.  

I revised my previous sermon, adding in some verses that would apply to the moms in in the church.  I kept the major theme that talked about miracles, and how they aren't really magic.  It's just about making things that seem impossible, possible.  I gave lots of examples like a) there are many people in Guatemala who can't read, and think it would take a miracle to learn  b) and how many mothers never believe their children will ever be healthy... but there are those in Guineales who can make these impossible things possible.  They can make miracles.  Yep... I know... kinda' cheesy.  You're probably thinking all I need is a Bette Midler song and some bad actors to turn it into a Hallmark movie of the week.  But I liked the message and worked with some Guatemalans to perfect the Spanish.

So, yesterday was May 9th.  Gabby and I walked the ten minutes to meet our ride to Guineales.  Much to my surprise, Miguel, the driver, was already waiting for us.  Most Guatemalans aren't prompt.  I have often waited for over an hour for rides, meetings, etc.  However, Miguel was fired up and ready to go.  He is a really nice fella, but I have a REALLY hard time understanding him.  He chews on his words like a baseball-sized wad of gum.  Think Mushmouth from the Fat Albert cartoons, only substitute Spanish for the normal, politically incorrect English.  In truth, I think he is the only man I have ever met who is allergic to vowels.  I believe he swells up like an Oompa Loompa if he uses them.  Most of our conversations turn into an episode of charades, which can be pretty entertaining.  Still, I am indebted to him, especially given the fact that he agreed to drive these two gringos for a six hour round trip just so the goofy guy could preach for twenty minutes.

Since the cab of the pickup is pretty tiny, Gabby and I opted to ride in the back in lieu of enduring horrible muscle cramps and charley horses.  Miguel warned us before leaving...

MIGUEL:  "crfl wth yr hts.  th wnd wll blw m ff"

US:  "Huh?"

MIGUEL:  "yr hts!  th wnd! 

US:  "Red hots unwind?  I don't think we get it."

MIGUEL:  (Pointing to his head)  "HTS!!!!!"  (then he moves his arm as if he is shooing away a large bird.)

US:  "Oh!  Hats!  No problem.  We'll just tighten them.  Thanks Miguel."

 

We tighten our hats as Miguel pulls onto the highway.  Seven seconds later, Gabby yells "Oh crap!"  I look up to see her red Old Navy cap take flight, and then come crashing down to earth as a Partridge-Family colored school bus grinds it into the pavement.  I slap the side of the pickup.  Miguel stops.  I jump out and run down the highway to retrieve the hat. My out-of-shape body pays the price by finding the charley horse we were trying to avoid by riding in the back of the pickup.  Mission accomplished.  Gabby thanks me for being her hero, and we begin the journey.  To avoid any further mishaps, Gabby does her best Russian Babushka imitation and ties her scarf around her head.

Gabby loves the heat of the coast!

An hour and a half into the ride, we have dropped 7000 feet in elevation.  The beautiful spring afternoon in Xela has now turned into a drive across the sun.  It's like we are trapped in Richard Simmons' legwarmers after a Sweatin' To The Oldies marathon.  The fact that neither of us has bathed in three days is becoming very apparent.  What's more, Gabby and I are both on medicine to get rid of some amoebas we picked up (no lie).  With the heat and curvy roads, our tiny parasites start doing "Riverdance" in our bellies.  We pull over at a brand new shopping center and walk into the only place we know of that has air conditioning - Burger King.

Gabby suffers through a plain hamburger, while I send the full scale assault of a Whopper and fries toward my amoebas.  After thirty minutes of cooling down, we get back in the truck.  This time, Gabby chooses to ride with Miguel while I stay in the back.

About forty-five minutes down the road, I hear someone yelling at me.  "Oscar!  Oscar!" (a lot of people here call me that).  I turn to see a young man running alongside our pickup.  It's Pascual, a guy who works with Miguel and me at the Instituto Biblico.  He is a really tiny 26-year-old with a permanent smile.  He lives in Guineales, but for some reason, he is in San Bernardino standing on the roadside.  He flags down our pickup and we stop to chat.

Pascual has been waiting here for the past four hours.  He is in San Bernardino to pick up an armoire for his sister.  He wasn't sure when Miguel would be coming by, so he has been watching every single car drive by in the hopes that he would see our old, beat-up Toyota.  If we can help him lug this armoire to Guineales, he can save the 70 quetzales delivery charge (about $9).  While this may not seem like much, it's just under three days' wages for Pascual.  We gladly load the armoire into the back of the pickup, and he and I slide in snugly beside it.  Luckily, he is the size of your average seventh grader, so I have plenty of legroom.

During our remaining forty-five minute ride to Guineales, Pascual tells me about his past jobs.  He cut coffee on coffee plantations.  He worked in a coffee packing plant.  He walked five hours one-way to bus tables at a restaurant near Lake Atitlan.  Now, he takes care of the small farm at the institute, making sure the weekend students have plenty of corn, tomatoes, onions and carrots for their lunches.  He loves the job because it is steady work, even though he only gets to come home on the weekends.  Wow!  Am I thankful for my education.

We finally reach the rutted dirt road that leads to the church.  We bounce along until coming to a stop in front of a big, bright purple building.  This is the Rey de Reyes (King of Kings) church.  I jump out of the bed of the pickup greeted by smiles and waves from people standing around outside.  Coming from inside the church is a cacophony of sounds you have never heard before.  Still, Gabby and I are accustomed to it.  

The pastor greets us and asks us to come inside.  It's 2:30.  The church service has already been going for a half an hour now.  The church is an oven inside.  I am scheduled to preach at 4:00.  The service should wrap up around 5:00.  This three hour God-Fest is normal here in Guatemala.  While we complain if a church service lasts longer than an hour, these folks are just getting warmed up.  It's a sight to see.

Inside, we are are blasted by yet another Guatemalan church norm.  The sanctuary itself is about two-thirds the size of a basketball court.  It is filled with plastic lawn chairs, men seated at the right side of the room and women on the left (a common practice in the rural areas).  The walls are cinder block, and the floors are concrete.  This creates a virtual echo chamber. Even though it is very easy to hear in such a room, Guatemalan churches like to let the whole town know when they are having a church service.  For this reason, they have a speaker on the roof that blasts the sermon out to the whole village.  Inside is a display of speakers and sound equipment that would make The Rolling Stones salivate.  Eight four-foot-tall Peavey speakers are cranked up to 11 (see the mock-u-mentary "Spinal Tap" for further information).  

A view of the inside of the church when our youth group came to visit.  Check out the speakers!  There are more on the other side.

It's like a Metallica concert, or at least how I think a Metallica concert might be.  The only rock concert I have ever been to was the "80's Hair Band Has-Been's Tour" of Ratt, Warrant and L.A. Guns back in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2000.  I think they were playing the Lion's Club Pancake Breakfast benefit or something.  Anyhow, I digress.  While we see no one crowd surfing, we still opt for seats near the back to avoid having to look for cochlear implants when we come home. 

The music is not my taste.  With the painfully high volume, the tiny Mayan Woman's voice is akin to the scraping metal one might hear when a DC-10 Jumbo Jet lands upside down on a concrete runway.  The almost-in-tune electric bass and guitars are a nice compliment.  I laugh as I consider the irony that army officials in the U.S. are now on trial for torturing Iraqi prisoners of war with similar tactics.  And here we sit, voluntarily, listening and smiling.

Antonio is a really nice guy, and one of the members of the church in Guineales who plays guitar in the "band."

However, while the music was not my cup of tea, it was amazing to see how whole heartedly the Guatemalans pour their souls into worship.  The music lasted for a full two hours (from 2:00 - 4:00).  Prayerful men would kneel directly in front of one of the speakers to feel the music.  Others clapped along, rhythm being of less importance than participation.  While the environment can be challenging, and my cultural biases can get the best of me, these services always present an opportunity to learn about persistence and getting lost in God. 

About five minutes until 4:00, the music stops.  The pastor once again thanks Gabby and me for coming.  He preps the congregation by telling them that Brother Scott (Oscar in Spanish) has come to deliver the "Word of God."  They all sit silently as I come forward. 

When I reach the pulpit, I take a deep breath, collect my thoughts, and ready my notes for the sermon.  I open by saying, "Shej' ij", which is "Good Afternoon" in Quiche.  It's one of the seven words that I know.  The congregation laughs, as my pronunciation is horrendous.  Heck, my butchered Quiche probably translated to "My kidney is shaved," or something like that.  However, the ice is broken, and I start the sermon.

I start off with a magic trick, which will later be contrasted with miracles.  (Magic is only meant to fool you, while miracles are meant to truly make possible that which seems impossible).  By the blank stares from the congregation, I am guessing that some still hold the belief that magic is a tool of the devil.  Strike one.  Preacher is demonic.  Perhaps not a good choice in this heavily Mayan area.  However, it is one heck of an attention grabber. 

I continue in Spanish.  I acknowledge that it is Mother's Day and ask that all of the mothers in the congregation raise their hand.  When I get no response, I repeat myself and raise my own hand to provide an example.  This time, hands go up.  The only problem is that several of the hands belong to men in the congregation.  Hmmm.  Now I'm guessing that probably only 30% of the people in the room speak Spanish.  Strike Two.  Luckily, the pastor has told me that he will translate the sermon later for those who would like to hear in Quiche.  Being that Spanish is his second language as well, he isn't comfortable translating on the fly.

Undeterred, I deliver the full sermon.  I talk about the hope of Easter.  I talk about the sacrifice of Jesus.  I tell the people that they are the key to making miracles in their own village, acting through faith to meet the needs of the community.  From the congregation I hear, "Amen!" and "Glory To God" very frequently.   It's very encouraging, except when they "Amen" me in the middle of saying "Remember the time in your village wh...."  AMEN!!!!!!!!!  or "Later on I would like to tell you abou..."  AMEN!!!!!! 

Still, through the sermon I learn that it isn't very important WHAT this red-headed, culturally biased, slightly insensitive gringo has to say.  What is more important is that I am here in their church, sharing worship with them.  What's more, they are filling up with pride by hosting Gabby and me and showing off their church to us.  By being here and caring, we have given these people dignity... perhaps the most valuable gift of all.  And no sermon can deliver that.

After the service, Gabby and I visited the homes of several of the people in the village.  We wanted to see the progress of the gardens we planted here two months ago.  Some places that we planted were like pure stone and clay.  We were skeptical that anything would grow in these places.  It would take a lot of work to keep the plants watered and the soil soft.

At every site, the people had constructed fences around their gardens to keep the pigs out, and tended to them daily.  Many mentioned how tasty the beets were, and how well the radishes grow.  The carrots were almost ready!  We couldn't believe it!  In even the most rocky places, everything was growing.  It was so encouraging to see the progress of this mission trip.  Families were living on food that started as seed just eight weeks ago.

Gabby showing off the garden 
that was planted by the church

 

Fransisco's garden 
was the rockiest of all

Katarina just got 
done harvesting beets

But what was most encouraging was to see the pride in the people's faces.  While they could not have purchased the seeds or received the training without the financial help of our church back in the states, they were he one's making sure that the project succeeded.  It was by their effort and their persistence that they could literally taste the fruits of their labor.  And this is what mission is all about.  It is not about delivering a magical sermon on Mother's Day.  It is not about bringing our God to people who already have one.  It is not about teaching the American way of doing things.  Rather, it is about partnering with people in faith.  Working with them hand in hand to find justice in a world with too much poverty.  It's about being a friend, and caring enough to let other's realize their own full potential, rather than relying on yours.

So, the substitute preaching adventure is over, but the learning continues.  When we were riding home in the back of the pickup, I caught a glimpse of the sky that just reminded me that God was in charge, and I'm only here to be a part of his world for a while.  What a beautiful thing.  Thank you God for these people who value me not for what I do, but simply for who I am.