What can I say? Exciting? Inspiring? Breathtaking? I think I've used up all of those words before. Guatemala - which just happens to be the 40th country I have been to in my life - is truly a world of it's own. One of the first things that struck me when I arrived here last Tuesday, January 10, was the exhilaration of the mountains - everywhere! I love mountains. I am like the Psalmist who often lifted his eyes unto the hills (mountains) and contemplated where his help came from. "My help cometh from the Lord!" Truer words were never spoken.
The view from my bedroom window in 'Casa Paul Somero', where he has graciously invited me to stay, in his absence, of course, underscores what I am talking about. You are never far from the mountains here. Yes, even before I got to this house we drove four hours directly from the airport in Guatemala City eastward to the village of Juan Ponce. There I went straight from the car to the pulpit and preached on one wonderful verse that God had given me in Leviticus 26:12. "And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people!" What a powerful theme for my two month stay here in this breathtaking (there, I did it again!) country.
Stopping for a view in the mountains with Scott and Karen Niemitalo. They flew all the way down from North Carolina to give me the warmest of welcomes to this mission field. Scott is the man in charge of Guatemala for the Foreign Mission. They stayed for just three days, but long enough to make me feel most welcome and at home.
One man who knows the mountains like the back of his hand is our dear brother in faith, Solomon, who is son-in-law of the revered Salgiero who has long since gone on. On the second day he took us way up into the mountains to the village of Tajaral - it seemed like we drove straight up for an hour and a half. When we had driven as far as possible we continued on foot to the local homes perched on the slopes to bring prayer and encouragement. Here Solomon is resting with his son after teaching us fascinating things about the flora and fauna along our way. Cutting a cactus to use it's juice to treat a dog bite that Lynn Wirkkala got as we entered one yard and showing us how one plant quickly shut it's leaves when tapped, among many other things. Lynn has been living here as a missionary for about four years now. It's good that the dog bit her and not me. If you know me and dogs I might never have come back :-) !!
In one home we met a sage old man in his eighties and shared the Word with him. Here with Scott Niemitalo and Denis Garcia. Denis has been back in Guatemala after his studies in the States for about a year and a half now. He is one of my most important Spanish teachers here. At this occasion I even read John 3:16 for the first time in Spanish.
This sign, at the entrance to the village means "Tajaral for Christ" indicating the spiritual foundation of the lives of many who live in this high mountain village.
But it isn't just the mountain vistas that take your breath away as you travel the roads of Guatemala, but it is the Wild West nature of the country. Every day we pass the shell of a school bus in which the driver was ambushed and killed in front of the children and his own daughters as some kind of retribution. People drive pretty much how they want to at the speeds they choose and park wherever they wish. In towns the formidable speed bumps keep the speeds down but it is hair-raising to see the chances drivers take on the highways. Police, military personnel and guards all with automatic rifles are virtually everywhere, but so is lawlessness. The other day we passed a big, almost new complex beside the road which Ryan used to visit regularly to get gas, shop at the shop or have a bite to eat at the cafe. Today it sits empty and abandoned, riddled with bullet holes and pocked with shattered glass windows. Someone obviously didn't like the owner.
In sharp contrast to the lawlessness is the way the law and grace through the Word of God are being spread here. Ryan Ruotsala is the fulltime missionary serving the three congregations here. In this picture very competently leading the singing with two ladies of the congregation of Piedras Azules last Saturday. Many of the songs sung are tunes familiar to us. Ryan has even presented me with my very own songbook in which I can write the English names of songs I recognize. The guitar makes it easier for me to sing in harmony with many of these tunes.
Like I said Piedras Azules is one of the three active congregations here, albeit probably the smallest. Here some of the women and children relax outside the church after the service. This church, like the other two, in Zacapa and Juan Ponce, are the result of many contributions and much hard work on the part of numerous people and visiting missionary groups visiting from our churches in the U.S.
Just two days ago Pastor Giovanni, who lives in Zacapa but serves all three of these churches, took me on a prayer walk through the village of Juan Ponce. This man is a pastor who is a Guatemalan national and has served these congregations now for past two years. He has been such a blessing to them since there was a real "pastoral vacuum" in this area for several years. The Foreign Mission always focuses on raising up indigenous pastors who both know the living Gospel and their own people and can serve in the long term.
We went from home to home, listening, encouraging, exhorting from the Word and praying with the villagers. Pastor Giovanni especially chose homes where family members, for instance the husband, were not attending church regularly or at all. Strong men in the church, with the exception of a few pastors and church workers, are a rarity here. Something I have seen to be sadly true in many other countries. And so we said a special prayer for the father in this family, as well as for the other members of course.
Prayers for the children. Here you see Jonathan, the little grandson of one of our church members, who suffers from uncontrolled eye muscles. He often holds his hand over his left eye, either to ease the pain or to be able to focus. He has never been seen by a doctor and badly needs that, but the family cannot afford it. LITTLE JONATHAN NEEDS HELP. Anybody out there?
Then we visited Sarah - who made us fresh tortillas in a manner that I am sure they have been made for eons. Very tasty. In each home we prayed with people and invited them to church. In another home a rather young man named Julio seemed to be touched by the Gospel. His wife and little son are church members and regularly attend but he had never been to church, earlier suffering from an alcohol problem. As we left his home Julio followed us carrying his axe over his shoulder. In the yard of another home I finally asked him if he wanted me to pray for him and his contrite heart. He consented. I felt the Holy Spirit come down upon us. His heart was touched to tears as I proclaimed for him the blessed Gospel of liberty to the captives that Christ himself had bought for us with His own blood on Calvary. How often Jesus had proclaimed this and how often He encouraged us to do likewise.
After our long walk in the heat of the day we were invited to one village home for a most "delicioso" meal. The hammock on the veranda looked so inviting after dinner so I did my "horizontal" thing and enjoyed myself thoroughly. In the lovely warmth of the afternoon my thoughts wandered. Imagine how I had been brought to this country that I never dreamed I would visit since "everyone else had already been here". But mostly I was thinking about our village prayer walk that day and how God had led us. Would the Holy Spirit bring those people to church the next night? It was an exciting thought!
The next evening (yesterday) I was back on the steps of the just completed Juan Ponce church watching a blazing sunset over the mountains disappear into a final intense wash of light. I could really only think of one thing, "Would God bless our prayer walk of the day before and "bring the wandering ones to Jesus"? The service was scheduled to begin at 6:30. At 6:20 just two people were there. At 6:30 maybe four more including Julio's wife and child had arrived. About twelve people had been there at the last service we had held there. My heart was about to sink, so I went in as Pastor Giovanni started the service with great enthusiasm, leading many beautiful and even familiar spiritual songs. I decided to concentrate on my sermon text for that evening, Luke 4:14-21, where Jesus read the master plan for his ministry on earth from the book of the prophet Isaiah (61).
The anthems raised. Suddenly I looked around. The church was filling with people and THERE WAS JULIO!! I went back to hug him, a big lump in my throat and a "Gloria" in my heart. And others just kept coming. By the time I got up to open my sermon (with several lines in Spanish, of course!) there wasn't a free chair in the sanctuary. And then I read, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring the gospel to the poor......" and the Holy Spirit took over.
If you made it reading this far - and I hope some of you did - you can go ahead and rejoice with me! God is good. His mission here in Guatemala is living and viable and now He has even allowed me to be a part of it!
May God's wondrous love and peace be with you all!