Friday, May 20, 2016

The Woman in the Red Dress

I cannot remember her name.  It makes me sad and a little embarrassed.  I remember her as the "Woman in the Red Dress."

She walked over to our tent in the heat of the afternoon.  We were wrapping up our activities at the Feria de Bienestar Familiar (Family Wellness Fair) for the day.  It was hot.  Very hot.  The Woman in the Red Dress said she was thirsty.  We could see that she was more than thirsty.  She was dehydrated to the point of not being steady on her feet.  Our own water bottles were empty, except for the lab tech's.  Our lab tech is a no-nonsense woman with a brusque manner and compassionate heart.  She gave up the last of her own water, quickly located some bags of water and directed the Woman in the Red Dress to drink it up.  

I remembered the dress and the woman from a year ago, two years ago.  It's funny how the memory of a red dress can stick in the mind.  The woman's dress reminds me of a red dress which I wore as a little girl - a dress for Sunday School or a special day at school.  

I looked carefully at the frayed edges of the skirt, the elastic around the sleeves which had lost its spring, the well-ironed ruffles.  The dress was sewn by hand, probably a long time ago.  I think the red dress is the woman's favorite dress.  She had come to the fair in her best fair-going dress. I think the woman likes the way the skirt swishes.  I think she feels pretty in her red dress.  And she is.  She is very pretty in her fancy, red dress.  

A couple of grandmothers from the community were with us under the tent.  They shared a little information with us about the Woman in the Red Dress.  She had walked all morning to get to the fair.  Many grandmothers in rural areas walk long distances to find company, to go to church, to gather fuel, to get water.  She lives alone.  Many grandmothers live alone.  She does not always have enough to eat.  Many elderly people struggle with hunger.  

The Woman in the Red Dress is a hero.  She is beautiful inside and out.  I don't remember her name, but I remember her spirit, her spunk, her eyes, her smile, and that red dress.

"You look so beautiful in your red dress," I said.  "May I take your picture?"

"Yes, of course," she laughed.  The other grandmothers under the tent told the Woman in the Red Dress to pick up the last bag of water.  They asked her to pose with it, so that we would have a memory of this moment.  I wonder what the grandmothers were thinking when they said we would "have a memory of this moment."

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  John 7:37-38 (NIV)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: A Little Restaurant on Top of a Hill off of the Main Road

So, you remember that time when you were traveling from clinic to clinic with a small delegation to express your gratitude for the support which the medical professionals provided during the big health fairs that the Lutheran Church sponsored in different communities and it took a little longer than you expected and suddenly it was 2 PM and you really needed lunch and you had no idea where to go and you didn't really see any place that was open?

This is a moment when you realize how important it is to have a driver who knows about secret hang-outs were kind people cook good food.

We were near Nejapa, the site of our next meeting.  Our driver took a turn off of the main road onto a small road and then onto another small road.  We parked at the top of the hill.  In this dusty, semi-industrial, just-off-the-truck-route neighborhood, we were surprised by a nice little view framed by cute little flowers.  We were greeted at the door by a nice older guy, and were led down a couple of steps from the small family space to a surprisingly large dining space.

We sat at the long table in the center of the room.  There were small tables around the perimeter of the room, and a huge, flat screen TV mounted on one wall.  We could imagine big groups of fans crowded around the tables, enjoying their local brew and yelling at the TV during a big soccer match.

Our driver told us that the fish would be really fresh.  The fried fish was absolutely fresh and delicious, as were the fries.  We relaxed, enjoyed our food and caught a bit of news on the TV.

We stopped by the front desk to pay our bill, and asked a little bit about this location, hoping to learn enough to remember how to find this place in case we were not with our trusty driver.  The older guy told us that the railway ran nearby, so this place is known as the place near the old railway.  He pointed to a photograph from the late 1970's which showed reporters taking pictures of the old train.  Much of the rail system was destroyed during the war, and travel by rail was suspended by the national government in 2002.  There currently is a small commuter line that runs between Apopa and San Salvador.  The restaurant owner remembered fondly that back in the day, photographers and rail enthusiasts would come to this spot near Nejapa to watch for the trains.

I asked permission to take a photo of the front of the restaurant, and the man and his wife said "sure."  When I asked if the two of them would like to be in the photo, they smiled just a little and agreed (although the chef said she did not exactly look presentable after cooking in the hot kitchen).

As we started our way back up the hill, I noticed a big poster on the front of the building promoting happy hour on Thursdays.  A paper sign was taped up near the door, informing customers and neighbors that chicken soup (made with corn-fed chicken) is available on Fridays.  The big pot of soup was sitting on a small table by the door.  Our driver told us that it is very delicious.

If you find yourself near Nejapa in search of a delicious meal, and a quiet and comfortable place to rest, at least on nights other than Thursday and perhaps not during a big game, you can probably ask around town:  How do you get to the place outside of town on the top of a hill, with delicious fresh fried fish and chicken soup on Friday...I imagine this little gem is more well-known than you might expect.  Don't forget to mention the photograph of the train near the entrance.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrection Rainbows: El Rosario Church

Happy Easter!  As promised, the rainbow photos from El Rosario Church, San Salvador.
Jesus is Alive!
The final station of the cross.
Walk from the high ceilings of the sanctuary to this side chapel with the
stations of the cross

The sanctuary is an ark, a place of refuge.   Colored
glass creates amazing rainbows as the angle of the sun
changes throughout the day.

The eye of God

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Finding Sanctuary in San Vicente

Cathedral in San Vicente
During this Holy Week, I have been thinking a lot about peaceful, sanctuary moments.  After I posted some photos from this past year,  I was reminded by a friend of a day visit the two of us made to San Vicente.  It was one of the first times we ventured out on our own without a Salvadoran friend to keep us out of trouble, and we had a fabulous time exploring the town and the churches. I pulled up my photos from our time in the sanctuaries of San Vicente, and my friend was right to remind me of the beautiful images.
Cathedral of San Vicente Abad

Nuestra Señora del Pilar

One of the oldest churches in Central America 
Señora del Pilar - built in 1762

This new sanctuary is built next to the old one, which has sustained damage
over the last 250 years from several strong earthquakes

Original sanctua

Monday, March 21, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Sanctuary

A beautiful aspect of the Roman Catholic faith tradition is the practice of keeping church doors open so the faithful can find a quiet sanctuary in which to pray throughout the day.  As Lutheran pilgrims in El Salvador, we often find ourselves seeking moments of respite and reflection in the middle of the day.  Whether in the heart of San Salvador or in a small rural pueblo, open sanctuary doors invite people to come inside for moments of prayer, of coolness and quiet, of rest and reflection, and of writing or drawing or capturing the moments with a few photographs.

A few of Linda's Sanctuary Moments from 2015-16...

El Paisnal

San Salvador

San Salvador




San Salvador

San Salvador

San Salvador

San Salvador
San Salvador
You also may wish to view recent photos of the Stations of the Cross in El Rosario.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fig Tree Moments

Sometimes I get asked to preach.  Although I am a natural teacher, I mostly feel like I am not a natural preacher, so I usually write out my sermons word for word.  The good thing about having a written copy is that I can share it with with people who ask me for it.  After Sunday's sermon, I received several requests for guess I will go public with this one.  The assigned text was Mark 11:20-25 and the theme was "Signs of Hope and Healing."

Mark 11:20-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from Bible Gateway
The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

Signs of hope and healing – how wonderful it is to focus on the love and power of God as we walk together on this Lenten journey, as we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.

At the start of our Gospel reading for today, we find the disciples walking past a fig tree, shriveled up to its roots. Peter asks Jesus about it, and Jesus launches into a little lesson for the disciples about the power of faith and prayer. Before we dig into Jesus’ teaching here, I think it will be helpful for us to backtrack a little bit to see what led up to this moment of teaching. Beginning with Mark Chapter 11, verse 12 which says:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, Jesus found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

By the next morning, the fig tree is shriveled up and dead. Peter says, “Hey Jesus, check it out – that tree that you cursed yesterday is totally dead.”

Now if I were to ask you to shout out the names of some of your favorite miracle stories from the Gospels, some illustrations of God’s great power, some of the most inspirational stories of hope and healing, my guess is that not one of you would say “Hey, what about that story of Jesus cursing the fig tree!”

This story is a little strange, right? Jesus is walking along with his disciples, feels hungry, sees this tree with leaves on it, goes over to see if he can grab some fig snacks, and when there are no figs, he points to the tree and says “May no one ever eat from you again!” -- Even though it was not even the season for figs. And then 24 hours later, boom, this tree is a shriveled up, dead.

We can’t know exactly what Jesus was thinking or feeling in this moment of cursing the fig tree, but it appears like Jesus was just downright hangry, (you know, hungry + angry = hangry) which seems just a little bit out of character for Jesus. Let’s try to get a little clearer picture of the whole fig tree incident by looking at it within the context of Jesus’ journey to the cross.

The day before his encounter with the fig tree, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the crowds were shouting Hosanna. In verse 11 we read that after all that hoopla, Jesus went into the temple and looked around at everything, and then it was late so Jesus left Jerusalem and walked back to Bethany. The next day, as Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, he is distracted by his hunger and curses the tree. And then? He keeps walking, marches into Jerusalem and marches right into the temple and starts flipping tables, accusing the money changers and church people of being robbers and hypocrites. Then it’s evening and Jesus goes back to Bethany.

The next day, Jesus is on the road again, walking to Jerusalem and there it is: the fig tree - withered down to the roots.

I think we cannot imagine how difficult this last leg of Jesus’ journey to the cross must have been. Jesus knew what was coming. He had to stay focused. This point – to stay focused – is one that Jesus makes throughout the Gospels – let nothing distract you from doing God’s work – not money, not stuff, not figs. Whether Jesus was angry at the tree, at the chaos he saw the night before in the temple, at himself …for whatever reason, he cursed the tree. And because Jesus is the Son of God, his curse held power, and that power was observed by Peter and the disciples. Jesus uses the moment to make his point: stay focused, Jesus says: “Have faith in God…have no doubt in your heart… believe what you say will come to pass…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”

Miguelito was not quite one year old when his mother brought him to the Mission of Healing. He was very small, not much bigger than a newborn. He could not sit, he could not hold his head up, he was too weak. He was born with a cleft palate. When his mother fed him the milk spilled out of his nose and mouth. She had kept him alive, just barely, through drips of milk making it into his stomach, through persistence and through prayer. Miguelito’s doctors had diagnosed him with failure to thrive, but they could not do surgery to fix his mouth until he was bigger and stronger.

Miguelito’s mom brought him to our team in desperation, hoping for a miracle. Dr. Zach is an allergist. He examined Miguelito with so much love. Nurse Jean knew just what to do. She had seen babies like Miguelito before. She knew he needed a special feeder. Our team went into action. We prayed for Miguelito. We walked and found rides to pharmacies all over San Salvador to buy up all of the preemie formula we could find. Jean bought small nipples and bottles. We delivered everything to the Miguelito’s family.

We traveled home. We prayed for Miguelito every day. Jean bought a Haberman feeder and we shipped it to Miguelito. We bought cans of formula and shipped them too, but the Salvadoran customs people would not accept them and a month later the shipment landed back on my doorstep. There were some moments along the way when we were angry and frustrated. We didn’t give up. We wrote letters to customs and recruited couriers from the area to carry preemie formula in every suitcase that traveled to El Salvador over the next year.

We never for one minute believed Miguelito would not make it. His mom, his pastor and our team were focused and persistent, not only in prayer but in action. Jesus said, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you if you say to this mountain be taken up and thrown into the sea and if you do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

One year later Miguelito’s mom brought him to see us at the next Mission of Healing. He had had the first of several surgeries to repair his mouth and nose. He was dancing and clapping. Over the years, Miguelito’s friends from the US have never stopped praying for him. For a few years, friends helped to pay the bus fare so Miguelito could receive physical and speech therapy. When Miguelito and his family have been able, they has come to the annual Mission of Healing to check in with us.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was at the Salvadoran Lutheran Church offices, I felt a little tug tug on my dress, and I looked down and there was Miguelito! He told me all about second grade. Let me say that again, he told me all about second grade. He was talking, really well!

Have no doubt in your heart. Believe what you say will come to pass.

Over the twenty years in which I have been working in ministry with our brothers and sisters in El Salvador, I have witnessed many miracles. Miracles of healing without medical explanation, miracles directly orchestrated by God’s healing hand and through the prayers of faithful people. Miracles like Miguelito, who is a sign of hope and healing through prayer and focus and persistence. And then there are the losses, deaths due to violence and illness, which have brought plenty of anger and pain and grief, but over time seem to grow into signs of healing which call us as a community to love each other more, and to work together to be better.

People ask me all the time, “What do you do in El Salvador?” I spend a lot of time listening to people.

On a recent afternoon I learned that Alex, a young woman in our Salvadoran congregation, has malignant kidney cancer. She grew up in the church and went to school with support from a scholarship program. Despite having a baby at age 17, she stuck with her studies and graduated from the university and has been in her career for a couple of months. Alex’s scholarship sponsor, Sandy, is a cancer survivor. Over all of their years together, since Alex was in grade school, Alex has supported Sandy with prayers and encouragement. Despite many recurrences, Sandy is alive and Sandy believes she is alive through the power of prayer from Alex and her family. Who better than Sandy can understand the journey which Alex is on right now, with surgery, chemo, radiation and a grim prognosis? I helped orchestrate a phone call between Sandy and Alex. “I know I need a miracle, and with faith and prayer, I will live,” said Alex, with great conviction. We believe Sandy is a part of this miracle that Alex is praying for. Sandy and Alex are signs of hope and healing for each other - and for all of us.

Besides listening, shedding some tears, and orchestrating things here and there in El Salvador, I have also found myself recently being pulled into an important work of the Salvadoran Lutheran church in building peace. The Salvadoran Lutheran Church has within its DNA the strong call to build peace and seek justice, and to do so by being a very public voice in the newspapers, on TV, and in the streets. Bishop Gomez of the Lutheran Church is the leader of an organization called IPAZ – the interfaith pastoral initiative for the peace. In a country which has suffered under a culture of violence since the time of the Spanish conquest, and which in the modern era finds itself carved into territories and controlled by gang forces, only the churches speak about peace-building and dialog. At the IPAZ table, gang leaders who can never leave the gangs find themselves called by God to transform gang culture are working together with pastors and lay leaders for prison reform, for just treatment of juveniles, for an end to killing of innocents by gang bangers, for an end to recruitment of children and youth, and for an end to widespread abuse and vigilante justice carried out by police and the military. This work, from community walks to prison visits to advocacy with the Salvadoran legislature is filled with signs of hope and healing.

When we, as followers of Jesus are doing the work of the Gospel, when we speak words of hope, when we lay on hands of healing, when we pray for health to overcome sickness, when we march for change, when we build peace, when we advocate for justice, when we pray for good to overcome evil, when we do the work of the Gospel in at home, in this community, across the city, in the United States or El Salvador – we, like Jesus, have our fig tree moments.

Anger is human. Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem filled with anger at the injustice of what was happening in the temple, in God’s house. The fig tree incident happened, but it did not distract Jesus from the focus of his journey. Jesus walked that walk between Bethany and Jerusalem, focused on the work which God sent him to do – to bring healing and hope to God’s people. Jesus channeled his anger to take a strong stand and heal the injustice and hypocrisy in the temple, God’s church. The next day, Jesus used the incident with the fig tree to teach a lesson about the power of God and the power of prayer, reminding God’s people that faith can move mountains into the sea, and with no doubt in our hearts, prayers said in faith are answered.

Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel are about forgiveness – “forgive if you have anything against anyone so that your father in heaven my also forgive you.”

Gospel work is hard work. And forgiveness is the hardest work of all. Fig tree moments will come in the midst of this work, but Jesus teaches us not to let anger control our focus. Jesus teaches us to use our fig tree moments for good, to channel anger for positive change, to spread hope, and to bring healing.


Monday, March 7, 2016

No Sides

On Friday night, a young man and a teenage boy were killed.  No, they were assassinated.  They were targeted and shot in their heads, in a home.  The young man struggled his whole life to live with a chronic disease and to work when he could to help support his mom.  The boy was a good student.  Why them?

On Saturday afternoon families and friends gathered for a vigil. Teenage girls and boys were inconsolable over the loss of their friends and in the realization that they might be the next targets.  This did not make sense.  Children cried because grown-ups cried.  The crowd would sit with the bodies until it was time to go to the cemetery.  Twenty-four hours.  The loved ones must be with their boys until they are sleeping in the earth.

On Sunday morning a small group gathered for worship in the Lutheran Church.  The 5-month calm had been broken.  A community which seemed to be rising up into a peace and sense of hopefulness now felt the familiar weight of grief and fear. Mothers of sons and daughters lost to violence felt the pain in their hearts sharpen.  Rumors were running through the community as people sought to make sense of what happened - rumors fueled by an enforced, physical division in the community.

...I ask you one thing, brother and sister, to pray for the life of your neighbor.  Before you pray for yourself - of course you pray for your own safety because you are afraid every time you go out or your children go out.  But I ask you:  before you pray for your own safety, pray for your neighbor.  Pray for the people who live down there [on the other side of the gang boundary].  

We have to pray for the life of our community, for the boys and the girls, the youth and those who are running the streets. We must ask for the spirit of God to fill us with the love and power of God.  There is no other way.  

In the midst of grief, feel the presence of God.  Feel the spirit of all in the community who want to live in peace.  Take in this air [everyone takes in a breath]...

When a mother has angry words or hits her child, she is hitting God.  If everyone in the community learned this - that God is love - then we would not be beating each other up or insulting one another, spreading talk about one another, much less murdering each other.  

We are sitting here in grief.  We are not thinking about hatred, revenge, finding the guilty.  We are the church and the mission of the church is to pray for the families, to break down the barriers that we have put up so that we can all share in the love of God...

Thanks be to God for life!  God is the God of the beginning, of Genesis, and of the end.  God is the owner of all the universe, all life.  God made a covenant with Abraham saying "I am the God who will raise you up like the stars."  What God wants for us is to grow and believe in his Word, to have a covenant with us.  Say this, "God, I want to make a covenant with you - I want to live in peace, grow my family, have a little house, value education, and enjoy some free time and fellowship with my neighbors."  God wants this just like we do, and God keeps his promises.  Our part is to have faith and prayer and the Word.

We need to show our love to these families [on the other side of the community], to bring them a pound of sugar for their coffee.  They are crying.  God in this moment is crying.  God cries for the hard hurts and evil we live with in this community.  Do you believe this?  [To a father whose son was killed last summer]: The day after [your son] was murdered, God passed by crying, right? [The father says yes.  Everyone says yes.] God does this every day.  Why?  Because God made his creation and wants his creatures to live in peace.  From the beginning God made everything good.  

Artwork created by Vonda Drees
God did not create "sides" in the community.  There are no "sides" in grief. There are no "sides" in creation.  There are no "sides" when we are filled with the spirit of love.  We can work for unity when we are filled with the power of God.  The pastor invited the people gathered to do something besides "sitting there with arms crossed."  He invited them to make a covenant with God and to write it down - just a few words.  How am I working with God at school, at home, in my work, in the streets?  This is the way to align yourself with the community - with people who pray for others, who love, who want peace..  

The pastor concluded with the image from Luke 13 of God as mother hen gathering her children safely under her wings.  What do we do if someone is behaving a little badly?  We walk with them and invite them under the wing.

Sermon given by a Lutheran pastor of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  Transcribed and translated by Linda Muth.