FCC Goes to Nicaragua: Day 2

24 October 2017

I said yesterday was day 1 of our trip, but I was wrong. Today was the REAL first day of the trip. Today was a bit of baptism by fire into the cultural context in which our mission partner, CIEETS, does work as well as learning a bit more about the vision and mission of CIEETS. It was, as I predicted, an eye-opening and heart filled day.

After a delicious homemade breakfast with eggs & ham, fruit, rice & beans, coffee, and orange juice, our group traveled to the University where CIEETS is housed. Actually, the University itself grew out of CIEETS as those pastors whom CIEETS trained asked for classes outside of the traditional realm of theology. The grounds, though, were lush with IMG_3774.jpggreen flora, impeccably cleaned by hard-working stewards, and fabulously decorated with beautifully painted murals. We eventually found our room for the day, where Jairo and other leaders in CIEETS waited for us to arrive.

After hellos were given, seats were found, and introductions were made, Jairo began our session. He first told us about the modern history of Nicaragua: how things came to be the way they are. He spun stories of grand revolutions, the U.S. overreaching, Nicaragua backsliding, and, eventually, a semi-return to prosperity. I say semi-return because Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Central America and the Caribbean after Haiti. Jairo said he felt the government focuses mostly on aid or handouts to combat the poverty. CIEETS, however, has a different strategy for working with those in poverty.

After a presentation led by Project Director Tania, the thing I most came away with was the focus on doing WITH instead of doing FOR. CIEETS was impacted by the Liberation theology movement which came out of Latin America in the middle of the 20th century. Liberation theology focuses on the context of those needing liberation, specifically expressed in Latin America, and then moves to how the Bible impacts that context.

Liberation theology argues God is (and by extension the Church should) always working towards the liberation of oppressed peoples. CIEETS looks at the context of those with whom they work, listens to the community’s hopes, dreams, wants, and needs, and then helps the community devise and implement a plan of action. They have a “holistic” approach to the people where they focus not only on the spiritual needs of people but also their physical and emotional needs because they all impact one another. CIEETS is about helping communities be “better” by developing leaders, (both in the community and pastors) to enable sustainable growth.

A saying that really hit home came from Jairo, “It is one thing to read the Bible in the midst of abundance; it is another to read it in the midst of need.” This saying launched us into a conversation with a group of about 15-20 leaders at CIEETS surrounding the article, “Mission Work Isn’t a Cinderella story” by Ellen Sherby, the Coordinator for Equipping for Mission Involvement for Presbyterian World Mission. In the article, IMG_3771.jpgSherby told us, through the story of her and her Honduran husband’s family (Sherby is from the U.S.) and how they couldn’t’ fully understand each other’s context; how we need to walk with empathy with each other. We know we can’t truly walk in each other’s shoes, but that should bring us humility and a better vision of the graceful and challenging relationships living out God’s mission brings.

The conversation surrounding the article was fantastic; it lasted for about 2 1/2 hours! Our leader and translator, Tracey, did her best getting across what we were saying to hour hosts and what our hosts were saying to us, but there were times we got frustrated with the language barrier. We wanted to be able to communicate clearly, but also understand each other better; we wanted to live out the principles we were discussing! Tania said it best, “it’s about getting to know [people] and seeing them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.” That’s what we were trying to do with them, that’s what CIEETS is trying to do in Nicaragua, and that’s what we hope to learn to take back to Iowa.

We stayed at CIEETS and had lunch. We dispersed amongst the gathered community to further get to know each other. He got to hear and share stories about our lives: who we are, what we do, how we live, what our families are like. It was a lovely lunch. I like to imagine the heavenly banquet isn’t too far from strangers getting to know one another over rice and beans. After lunch, we said our goodbyes and left for the hotel.

That early evening, we got a brief tour of Managua which culminated in a visit to a park IMG_3787.jpgwith replicas of Cathedrals throughout Nicaragua as well as “Old Managua” which was destroyed in an earthquake in the 70s. It was cool to see the varying styles of architecture.

We closed the day with a typical dinner of rice, beans, avocado, and cheese at the hotel. We then moved onto our devotion time spent together in prayer and conversation. Debriefing the first day took awhile, but that was okay. We needed it. Our Wednesday was to begin early as we were leaving for the mountains to see how CIEETS puts their vision into practice in the local community. Sleep came quick.


FCC Goes to Nicaragua: Day 1

It was a long first day; our group was tired from all the different ways we traveled to get to Nicaragua. We were tired, but looking forward to what the week will bring us in Nicaragua.

We left Burlington bright and early at 4:30 am. It was a good thing we did because e hit bumper to bumper traffic once we got onto 294 in Chicago. Monday rush-hour traffic is not something to scoff at, especially when you’ve been conditioned to Burlington traffic. Hectic is the word which comes to mind. We eventually made it to our gate with time to spare for our flight was delayed an hour.

The flights themselves, to Atlanta and on to Managua, were generally uneventful. we hit some turbulence in a couple of places; we were served a “dinner” of cheese, nuts, and crackers; and our second flight as almost four hours. On that second flight, we received our first taste of life outside the United States. Every time something was announced by a pilot or flight attendant, it was announced in Spanish and English. I made a game, at which I horribly failed, of trying to translate what was said. My hodgepodge Spanish didn’t cut it, a preview of things to come.

We landed, got through customs relatively pain-free, and collected our bags. We were ready to go and find whoever was going to pick us up. We moved to the exit where a sea of men holding signs waited for the newly arrived. I searched quickly, not wanting to appear to be any more of a tourist than I already was, but saw no signs looking like they were for us. Then I heard the joyfully searching call of “Iowa!?! Iowa!?!” and found our guide Magyolene motioning us to follow her.

Pleasantries were exchanged and our delight increased as the Director of CIEETS (short for the Inter-Church Center for Social and Theological Studies) Jairo Arce and his son Joab joined our welcoming party. A quiet, confident soul was Jairo. Well connected and at home with himself. We then met our driver Armando who would be with us for the week. He took us to our first outing of the trip: dinner at 9:00pm.

It was delicious. Some had steak and shrimp, others had soup. I ate a house specialty, Indio Vieja, a sort of stew. Best of all was seeing how everyone tried their hardest to


Some of us who made the trip at dinner.

converse with one another. It was obvious there was a language barrier, but it was also obvious it didn’t’ deter us from trying to show Christ’s love with one another. We talked sports. We talked weather. We talked home life. We talked about music. We even took a few brief remedial Spanish lessons.

After dinner, we left for our hotel. We waited with anticipation for Tuesday morning because we were to have a meeting with the leadership of CIEETS at 9 am. I expected it to be an eye-opening experience to hear a bit how church leaders are trained for a completely different context than the one in which I work.

Each day was to have a guiding question that grounded what we were doing. I forgot to tell the group the question for a couple of days, including the first day! It was important enough to comment on though: based on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11), where do you see God’s blessing today? It was a blessing that roles were switched. Normally, Americans view themselves as powerful, autonomous, and independent, but it was evident from the start that we needed someone to guide us in this foreign land. We needed a shepherd, and God sent us Magyolene.

Thanks be to God.

FCC Goes to Nicaragua: Introduction

The planning started well over twelve months ago. The idea was to create a spark at FCC Burlington for participating in healthy and life-giving ministry with our Christian siblings in other parts of the world. If we truly believe God’s Spirit was unleashed on the world, that means God is already up to something wherever we go; we simply have to figure out where that Holy Wind is blowing, open up our sails, and ride along.

I did some research and found out about the People to People Pilgrimage program at Global Ministries (the division of Overseas Ministry for Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ). People to People matches groups in the United States with groups overseas in ministry partnerships. Here’s what they, Global Ministries, says about the program: “A mission pilgrimage is a transforming experience through which participantsglobalministries.gif share themselves and receive God’s love in a new way. Participants take common steps of faith in walking with our partners, sharing their joys, understanding their challenges and experiencing their unique connection to our wider church.”

I thought this program would be perfect for FCC Burlington as it would expose the participants to the work already being done in God’s name, so I reached out to see if FCC Burlington could schedule a Pilgrimage.

Lorna Hernandez, the Coordinator of People to People, helped me figure out what would be the best fit for FCC. It was to be the first trip sponsored by the congregation, so we didn’t want to go too far overboard. We decided upon Central America or the Caribbean in October/November as it would be close and cooler. She had the idea of Nicaragua being a good fit with the Interchurch Center for Social and Theological Studies (CIEETS) as the mission partner we would visit. It turned out to fit like a glove.

Recruitment of participants came next. Spots were limited to five to ten people. We didn’t want the trip to be too big for the first time either. We had upwards of 15 people express interest, but, for one reason or another, we settled in at 7 participants (including me).

Meetings were ongoing.

We learned about the People to People Program itself. We studied how mission trips often turn into voluntourism where the focus is on the person going and less on the community already there. We talked about the history of Nicaragua and what it would be like to be there. We practiced some of the prayer practices we would employ to reflect on what we would see, hear, and learn. As the travel day got ever closer, we even talked about necessary but mundane things like shots, what to pack, and what to wear.

We eventually received a detailed schedule of all the things we would be doing, the people we would be meeting, and the sites we would be visiting. Anticipation kept on reaching higher and higher until the day came and we left for our own Pilgrimage.

While on the trip, I took a daily journal log. I’m going to share that journal with you so you’ll be able to, in a way, see what we saw, hear what we heard, and learn what we learned. I’m going to write them day by day. Some entries are longer than others, but I hope by the end to answer that question, “So how was your trip?”


Thinking of Neighbors

Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. (Matt. 22:10, CEB)


In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost penned a line which often gets used out of context: “fences make good neighbors.” This sentiment is held up as an ideal or reason to keep people separate. “You have yours and I have mine, never the twain shall meet,” we think.

We are happy with our fences. We are happy to keep to ourselves. We are happy to hole up in our hovel.  We are happy to keep others out. We are happy to hoard and control the things we have. They are ours. Fences make good neighbors because they keep us and our stuff safe from the prying hands of others.

So why in the heck would Jesus tell this story where the Kingdom of God is compared to a wedding feast where both the evil and good fill up the party? Why are the riff-raff invited? Why are the unseemly allowed to RSVP? Why are the less than desirable included in all the festivities?

Come on, Jesus, have some decency after all. I mean, this is God’s empire full of hope and love we are talking about here. Can it really be “good news” if those whom we deem “unworthy” are included in all the fun? We better put up a fence and keep them out, right?

In the wake of the #metoo movement sweeping social media, I have been thinking about this dividing fence.

Best I can summarize, #metoo is an attempt to bring to light the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women. Simple statements of #metoo, let the world know a person has been, or is still, a victim of such action. While statistics show us the prominence, seeing and reading stories hits home.

And I must admit, this is my fault. There have been times in my life where I’ve contributed to a #metoo story. I’ve sexually harassed women, both intentionally and unintentionally. I’ve contributed in what I’ve said and done, and what I’ve left unsaid and undone.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something that’s true. But what is also true is that it is sin. I’ve sinned by degrading the humanity of another. If there is a fence built up, I would be placed on the side of those deemed “unworthy” because of my sin.

But even I am invited to the party, too.marius-sebastian-42828.jpg

If you continue reading Jesus’ story though, we know we can’t stay in the same place. It’s not enough to simply come to the party, we must be transformed. Confession is necessary. Repentance is necessary. Change is necessary.

We must admit when we’ve done wrong, including the ways we’ve contributed to a culture of sexual violence and patriarchal power, and ask for forgiveness. Then, we must work for transformation. We must break down the fence of ignorance so all have access to the green grass of hope and peace.

May it be so this day.

Unwanted Advice

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Phil. 4:4)

When I was a bit younger, I had a bit of a temper. I would yell and scream. I would take my anger out physically, punching doors, walls, even windows. This led to a period of time when my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges and let me live door free. No privacy. Great for a teenager who thought he was more important than he was.

But as I was growing up one thing in particular often set me off. My brother would chide 205820_1011778379367_1752_n.jpgin whenever I was getting a little hot under the collar with a, “Take a chill-pill Will.” If I was a cartoon steam would have shot out my ears, my eyes would have bulged out of their sockets, and my face would have turned beet red (that might have happened anyway).

While he was most assuredly was trying to get under my skin (thanks, bro), the simple reminder to do something was easier said than done. It even made me hoppin’ mad.

This happens when it comes to joy. Paul tells the Philippians, “rejoice in the Lord always.” Easier said than done.

What about when the car breaks down? What about when the account is in the red? What about when the medical bill comes in the mail? What about when he says he doesn’t love you anymore? What about when the system doesn’t bring you justice?

Rejoice? Thanks, Paul, but that’s easier said than done.

Though, knowing what Paul was going through might help alleviate the recoil his reminders produce.

Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison waiting for a capital punishment. He spent his death row time writing a letter to a church and reminded them the necessity of rejoicing in and celebrating what God has done. Paul would probably agree with us, pablo-heimplatz-243278.jpgrejoicing is easier said than done, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we don’t do it.

Later on in the letter (the very next verse even), Paul told the Philippians something that still rings true, “The Lord is near.” Hope is available because God is near. Joy is available because Christ is near. Love is available because the Spirit is near.

Sometimes all that is needed is to be reminded. “…again, I will say rejoice.”

May it be so this day.

Can’t be Silent

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

I woke up yesterday morning in shock.

The news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas certainly caught me off guard. You never expect to hear reports of scores dead and hundreds injured while drinking your morning coffee. These types of events are becoming all too common, but it still felt like a sucker-punch to the gut. mike-boening-116749.jpg

If you’re like me, I was left reeling with thoughts of, “How can this happen? Who would do such a thing? How am I going to respond? What can I do?”

I just preached on Sunday the need for action, the need to resist the temptation of playing the role of the ostrich: sticking one’s head in the sand, avoiding the hard and difficult, sinking into the background. How do I practice what I preach? How do I respond in a way that is constructive and life-giving?

It’s a day later and those questions are still swirling in my mind, but I can’t be silent.

With the continued onslaught of perpetual violence, it seems even easier to retire into the nihilistic theology which espouses, “it’s a broken world, so there’s nothing we can do about it.” The inclination towards navel-gazing is strong when the problems of the world seem so large.

But we are not called to passive submission to the powers that be. Paul calls us to “overcome evil with good.”

While it shouldn’t take events such as the Massacre of Las Vegas, Sandyhook Elementary,  Virginia Tech, or the Pulse Night Club (all within the past five years) to convince action needs to be taken, we still need to. Silence in the face of such wanton disregard for human life is abhorrent.

We can’t stand by.

It will look different for you than it will for me, but we must do something.  We must put our faith into action. We must live out our prayer for God’s will here on earth as it is in heaven. We must work to overcome evil with good.

May it begin this day.

Obscuring our Vision

If I go forward, [God] is not there;
   or backward, I cannot perceive [God];
on the left, [God] hides, and I cannot behold [God];
  I turn to the right, but I cannot see [God]; (Job 23:8-9, NRSV)

Job (long “o”) had a heck of a time. He lost everything: children, house, livestock. Not only that, but he got some of the worst acne a person could dream up. Destitution is the word one thinks of when you think of Job. Look up “sufferer” in the dictionary and you find a picture of Job.

The thing was, in Job’s eyes, he didn’t deserve any of this. He had been a good man. He’d done what was required of him. He participated in his religious obligations. He showed mercy when needed. He raised a good family. He was the poster child of success. When it was all taken away, he was understandably shaken. He was left wondering where was God? He couldn’t understand where God was in all of his calamity.

Instead of seeing the glorious light, he only perceived the incongruous dark.

About 3 years ago, my now 5-year-old nephew, Henry, and his family were over at my grandmother’s condo for Thanksgiving. Before everyone passed out from too much tryptophan consumption, Henry and my grandmother, Pat, played a rousing game of hide-and-seek.

Henry always wanted to be the one who hid. He hid behind the curtains. He hid under the bed. He hid in the closet. He hid under the table. Anywhere you can think of, Henry tried to hide there. Pat would do the requisite, “Where are you, Henry? I can’t find you? Have you seen Henry? He’s hiding somewhere.”

My favorite part of this hide-and-seek game came when he decided the best place to hide was in the long hallway where there were no real hiding spots at all. caleb-woods-182648.jpg

Henry would run out into the long hallway of the fifth floor and hide by placing his face up against the end of the hall, his eyes closed, hands over his face. He would then exclaim, “Okay! I’m hiding” as if when he closed his eyes no one could see him. He was invisible and the world could no longer find him. The thing was for Henry, not only was he hidden but more importantly it seemed that the world was hidden from him. He couldn’t see my grandmother sneaking up on him to grab him with a loving embrace of “Gotchya!”

Shaking off the Doldrums

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment… (1 Timothy 6:6, NRSV)

It sneaks up on you. It catches you when you least expect it. If you don’t pay attention, it pops up out of the blue.

It can rob you of enjoying what is going on around you. It can steal your appreciation for what you have. It can hijack any good time you might have otherwise been having.

Boredom. It is a demon which saps the present of any value and transforms us into people we would otherwise ridicule. javier-canada-300092.jpg

Fred Craddock tells the story of a clergyman who was watching the Indianapolis 500. After about two hours of the same cars driving the same way on the same track, boredom transformed this otherwise good Christian into a “degenerate sinner. At first he said, he simply entertained thoughts of ‘what if…?’ and his own imagination thrilled him. But soon his boredom demanded more. A car caught fire. Hoorah! Not until later did he remind himself that he, a Christian minister, had experienced no concern for the driver. But a burning car was not enough; something more dramatic was needed to effect a resurrection from the death of boredom. Voices within him, he admitted, began to call for a smashup. The demon of boredom had totally transformed him” (Craddock  Overhearing the Gospel, 7.)

I can always count on finding myself annoying my wife at 7:15pm when there’s nothing on TV and I’ve scrolled through Twitter already. Bored. I can count on sighing deeply, reminiscing about all I could be doing if I was somewhere else as we enter into hour 3 of our 13-hour car ride. Bored. I can count on mentally going through my fantasy baseball roster as the speaker drones on and on and on at the seminar I’m at. Bored.

We all know what boredom is. I contend the opposite of the vice of boredom is the virtue of contentment. Whereas boredom transforms us into grotesque versions of ourselves who look at other people and things merely in their utility for our entertainment, contentment transforms us into people who look around and express thankfulness for the particular moment.

But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s much easier to be swept up in the voracious ads promising unrelenting entertainment, action, and joy if we just buy this one thing, look this certain way, have this particular home.

Contentment starts when we are able to realize what we have is a gift. Even if we worked hard for it, it’s still a gift. When we can have eyes of gratitude, we are able to live in contentment and hold boredom at bay. It’s a constant struggle, but one we can fight together.


Having Grown Up Ears

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… (Eph. 4:1, NRSV)

My family moved to a new house when I was in the midst of my college years. Jobs and compromise ruled the day, so my parents packed up and moved to Eastern Iowa. Of course, in preparation for the move, we packed up the entire house. This obviously meant going through the house reminiscing.

“Remember when you tripped and fell here…”

“How about all those meals we ate right over there…”

“Gosh, look at that stain, I forgot when you…”

I even managed to clean out from below my bed. I unearthed a whole manner of different things. There were dirty socks. There were fingernail clippings. There were dust bunnies. There was also my “special box” that box where my parents saved all those important things from my child hood: report cards, drawings, medals, book reports. I even found this special book I filled out when growing up.


There I wrote the most important things about me that year: favorite color, favorite book, favorite food, best friend. It was amazing to look back and see the decisions I was forced to make. In the chicken-scratch like penmanship, I was forced to discern the defining characteristics of my life that year, including what I wanted to be when I grow up.

Some years it was a paleontologist. Others it was a storm chaser. I even thought I wanted to be a lawyer on one occasion. The training ground of this book helped me figure out what I was supposed to do because it trained me in discerning what was important to me and what I was good at, those gifts God gave to me. It helped me discern what my vocation, my calling, was to be.

The preacher Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”


There is a voice which calls us out of ourselves and into the world. We can hear it, or we cannot. We listen, or we don’t. Part of what it means to grow up is to be able to observe the competing voices that demand our attention and discern the intentions behind them. Good thing there’s a place to help you tune out those false narratives, we call that place the Church.

Thanks be to God.