A mysterious powdery substance

Our church vans get lots of use at San Lucas and Cristo Rey. We pick up a few people for worship, transport donations for our foodbank, run many and various errands, and cross the border into Mexico each week for worship in Piedras Negras. I haven’t had any problems with inspections or danger yet, but I do feel safer using the church van to cross into Mexico, rather than my own personal car.

Last week, in the course of one of our trice-weekly trips to WalMart to pick up food donations, one of the bags of sugar somehow got ripped. When we were loading up the van to drive to Mexico for worship on Sunday, I discovered that the floor and back seat of the van were completely covered with a layer of sugar. I put my guitar case and backpack over some of the powder, trying to cover it up, but there was still sugar everywhere. I knew it was sugar, and anybody with common sense who had ever baked cookies or stirred coffee could tell that it was sugar strewn upon the floor. Nevertheless, I started to worry.

One of the church members going across with me said, “We need to go to the carwash and get that vacuumed right now. The last thing we need to hear on the news is ‘Lutheran pastor arrested for transporting drugs.’” With the sugar vacuumed and with a cleaner van, we crossed there and back across the border with no problem. I am not in jail. Thanks be to God.

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Intergenerational multicultural service learning

This past week, we’ve had a group of visitors from two of our mission partner congregations in Iowa. Because the property at San Lucas had been an orphanage many years ago, one of our buildings is perfect for dormitory space.  Several congregations have long histories of partnering with San Lucas, both with financial commitments and with sending groups for mission and service learning trips. I see this as an opportunity for San Lucas to be a teaching congregation for the wider church. It’s a wonderful place to learn about Christian community in this border context.

 It was a good group for my first time having guests. More than half of the group had been to San Lucas before; a few multiple times. We all worshipped together on Sunday, both at San Lucas and across the border at Cristo Rey, a mission community in Piedras Negras. I’m getting my practice driving a fifteen-passanger van on the bumpy dirt roads on the way to Cristo Rey. I crossed over with the group to Piedras Negras on Monday and Tuesday. They did both health and construction projects. At the heath fair, they checked blood pressures and sugars and distributed health kits. The other half of the group partnered with Hands and Feet  to help build a house for a family from a neighboring congregation whose home was recently destroyed in a fire. Later, our Iowa friends spent Wednesday and Thursday at San Lucas, doing a wide variety of helpful property projects and putting on a health fair during the hours our food bank was open.

 As wonderful as it is to see some completed tasks, for me it is a joy to see the relationships built. When members of the congregation bring food and share a meal with the group in the evenings, my prayer has been something like: “Dios todopoderoso: Gracias por este día, esta comida, y esta oportunidad de ser la iglesia juntos…” “Almighty God, thank you for this day, this food, and this opportunity to be Church together…”


Sermón: Miércoles de Ceniza

My sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2011.

Con cruces de ceniza en nuestras frentes, empecemos la estación de cuaresma. Tenemos cuarenta días para orar, para enfocar y reenfocar nuestra fe, y para recordar nuestra identidad como hijos e hijas de Dios.

Yo recuerdo una de las primeras personas que recibió cenizas de mí, cuando yo era interno en una iglesia. Este hombre era alto, y tal vez tenía treinta años. No he visto este individual en la iglesia antes. Desde que sepa yo, fui su primera vez.

Como los otros en la congregación, él viene al altar para recibir cenizas. En mis manos, tengo un platito de cenizas de palma, mezcladas con un poco de aceite. Pongo ceniza en mi dedo, y toco su frente, diciendo estas palabras del libro de Génesis: “Recuerda que eres polvo y al polvo volverás.”

Él dice, “Amen.” Y yo también. “Amen.” Después de la misa, quiero conocer este visitante. Me dice, “Necesito recibir cenizas para que mi novia piense que asisto a una iglesia.”

Hoy, acabamos de oír las palabras de Jesús: “No practiquen su religión delante de la gente sólo para que los demás los vean.” Y además, Jesús espera que sus discípulos no sean hipócritas a quienes orar para que toda la gente los vea.

Sí, parece extraño que, en el día cuando oímos Jesús enseñando sobre las buenas obras, tenemos cenizas en nuestras frentes.

Pues, el miércoles de ceniza no es para impresionar a otros. No es para ganar una novia. No es para ser jactancioso ni vanaglorioso. Sino, es para afirmar nuestra condición como seres humanos.

Admitamos que somos rotos. Somos una gente que necesita un salvador. En este día, recordamos nuestra conexión con la tierra, nuestra solidaridad con todas las personas que sufren, y en la misma manera, la solidaridad de Cristo con nosotros.

“Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.”

Oímos estas palabras en el libro de Génesis, cuando Dios sacó a Adán y a Eva del jardín de Edén después de desobedecer a Dios y comer el fruto. Esto es el primer semáforo de mortalidad humana. Sabemos que, algún día, vamos a morir. No vimos por siempre. Volveremos a nuestras origines.

“Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.” Tal vez, una mejor manera de traducir esta frase es: “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.” La palabra en hebreo es adama’. Significa tierra, como en un campo o en un jardin. Es la tierra donde crecen plantas. Adama’. Entonce, Adan, el primer ser humano, es de adama’. Adan es una creatura de la tierra. Como seres humanos, tenemos conexiones íntimos con la tierra. Cada cosa que usamos, cada comida que usamos, es un producto de la tierra, que he creado por Dios. “Eres polvo y al polvo volverás.” “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.”

Los campesinos y los geologiotas saben que, en realidad, la tierra está llena de vida. Está lleno de organismos y minerales microscópicos que ayudan el crecimiento de las planta. La tierra que vemos en el paisaje tejano parece muerte y fea y sucia, pero, sin duda, está llena de vida.

Favor de pensar en esta cosa en su frente. Parece muerte y fea, y sucia, pero, sin duda, está llena de vida. Tiene la forma de la cruz, un semáforo de las promesas de Dios.

El miércoles de ceniza, somos marcados con una cruz, pero somos marcados con una cruz en otra manera. Durante el bautizo, oímos las palabras: “Has sido sellado y marcado con la cruz de Cristo para siempre.”

Probablemente llevamos la cruz de miércoles de ceniza por unas horas más hoy. Cuando duchamos y bañamos, esta cruz desaparecerá, pero las promesas de Dios en las aguas de bautizo siempre estarán con nosotros.

La estación de cuaresma empezaba y desarrollaba como uno tiempo de preparación bautismal.

En los primeros siglos de la cristiandad, como hoy mismo, las personas eran recibidas en la iglesia por bautismo. Usualmente solamente era una vez cada año para bautizar—durante la Vigila Pascual. En este servicio, al atardecer, cerca del un fuego nuevo, la gente recordaba historias de los hechos de Dios. Las personas que aprendían sobre la fe por la primera vez fueron bautizadas. Para preparar, estos cristianos nuevos tendrían un tiempo antes para aprender, para estudiar, para orar y practicar hechos de caridad. Otros cristianos maduros querían estar en solidaridad con los nuevos, y entonces, participaron en estas actividades preparatorias. Este tiempo de reflexión y oración ha desarrollado a la estación de cuaresma.

Unas personas usan cuaresma como un tiempo para dejar una cosa. Pero, también, la cuaresma es un tiempo para recordar. Es para recordar que somos hijos e hijas de Dios, sellado por el Espíritu Santo y marcado con la cruz de Cristo para siempre. También, es un tiempo para enfocar y reenfocar su identidad cristiana.

Como cristianos, somos creados en la imagen del Dios. La cuaresma tiene más que ver con nuestra identidad como gente creada en la imagen del Dios, y menos que ver con nuestras imágenes humanas. No estamos aquí para ganar ninguna cosa de Dios.

No estamos aquí para impresionar a nadie. Estamos aquí para reenfocar y para recordar quienes somos–Hijos e hijas de Dios. “Eres tierra y al tierra volverás.” Amén.


How I learned Spanish

One of the most common questions I am asked when people find out that I use bilingual gifts in ministry is, “How did you learn Spanish?” I imagine that they are really thinking, “Why does a white guy from Iowa speak Spanish?”

Initially, as a very young child, I picked up a few Spanish words and phrases from watching Sesame Street, and my older sister had informally tried teaching me a few more words when she was majoring in Spanish. I officially started learning Spanish in junior high and high school, from eighth through twelfth grade. I had a rather passionate teacher who really encouraged writing and speaking in Spanish.

In college, I got halfway through a major in Spanish. In the pursuit of a well-rounded liberal arts education, I changed majors a few times, ending up with degrees in geography and religion, but still able to somewhat function in Spanish.

Though I had visited my sister’s family in Nicaragua, the rubber really hit the road for me, in terms of speaking Spanish, when I was on internship for a year at a bilingual congregation in Manhattan. Every time I preached, the first sermon was at 11 a.m. in English, and at 1 p.m. in Spanish. On major feats days, like Reformation Day, Palm Sunday, and the vicar’s last service, we combined and had bilingual worship. During my last semester of seminary, I took a class about Latin American church history that was taught entirely in Spanish.

I admit that my Spanish skills aren’t perfect. I don’t always conjugate a verb correctly, and sometimes, if I don’t know what the right word is for something, I just call it esa cosa–that thing. I can read and write, but I still struggle with listening to what people say, especially if they use any colloquial vocabulary at all. I felt very attracted to the call at San Lucas because it is a congregation hispanohablante.

Now in my second week at San Lucas, I feel my language skills have improved immensely just in the past days. I’m still not perfect, and I do a lot of circumlocution when I don’t know the right word, but I’ve found that people are very grace-filled when it comes to my language ability. The only way for it to improve is to practice, ¿verdad?


Bible study

Before I came, San Lucas already had a rather strong adult learning program on Wednesday nights. Usually around twenty-five people have been coming to this Bible study. They call it a Bible study, but the topics in the past have been wide-ranging: an overview of the sacraments, Lutheran doctrine, Bonhoeffer.

My goal tonight was simply to get to know the group and figure out what we want to do in the weeks ahead. I started by getting out the guitar, and we sang a few songs from Libro de Liturgia y Cántico. This is the time to choose and practice hymns for Sunday so that there is a good critical mass of singers who know the music spread out in the congregation. After that, I invited folks to share their name and their favorite thing about San Lucas. I was humbled by how many said having a new pastor was their favorite thing.

I suggested three options for our learning together:

A. Reading the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary texts.

B. Going through an entire book of the Bible.

C. Having a specific topic, like women of the Bible, justice, stewardship, the Ten Commandments.

The overwhelming winner: Lectionary texts! Though down the road, I’d love to do something creative, edgy, and controversial, I think lectionary studies provide a great grounding. It will strengthen and encourage my preaching to know that there will be at least twenty people in the assembly on any give Sunday who have already pondered and thought about the scripture they are hearing, and we will have studied it together.


Mi primer día

I’m slowly starting to get settled into the parsonage in Eagle Pass. It will be a slow process to get the books shelved, the pictures hung, and the clothes unpacked.

Today was my first actual working day as pastor of San Lucas. I’m still getting used to functioning more in Spanish, and learning about the congregation, its context and my role. Here are some highlights from mi primer día:

I snooped around my office in the morning, getting a feel for the administrative stuff. I’ll do most of my writing and computer work from the study in the parsonage, but will be present a few hours a week in the church office, likely the same hours as the food bank, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The food bank at San Lucas serves about 160 families from the community every month, and the congregation has a strong team of volunteers who helps it run smoothly. Today I ate tacos with some of the volunteers.

In the afternoon, I rode in the church van with two volunteers to pick up some food donations from Wal-Mart. They make the trip three days a week. Wal-Mart has been very generous to San Lucas. We took the food back to the church to sort and put it away. I’m starting to learn the nuances of recording and reporting the activities of the food bank.

After some more office tasks, including a call to check in with my bishop on this first day, I had a meal of soup and tostadas with a family from the congregation. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the learning I need to do, but it is a good start to an exciting ministry.