Rosaura Henríquez de Castillo, Luz Maria's sister, is the local coordinator for Operation Christmas Child, which is how we became involved in this activity. With her help, we sponsored the first-ever Operation Christmas Child event in La Caramuca in 2004. Our condition for participation, then and now, is that La Caramuca Lutheran Mission and Corpus Christi Lutheran Church have complete responsibility for the presentation of the Gospel message during the event.
There were 70 children in attendance at our preschool on Friday morning, October 6. A selected group of children presented a musical interpretation of what they had learned in Sunday school and vacation Bible school about:
- Creation. God made the world and it was very good.
- The Fall. Sin, death and misery came into the world through Adam and Eve's rebellion and disobedience.
- Redemption. Jesus atoned for the sins of all through his life of perfect obedience and death on the cross, and how all who believe in Him will share in His resurrection into eternal life.
- The Great Commission. Before his Ascension into heaven, Jesus commanded His church to make disciples of all nations.
All the members of the group wore their "Sembradores por Cristo" (Sowers for Christ" shirts. These are dark green with Luther's Seal (official symbol for the Lutheran Church of Venezuela) on the front and the words, "Sowers for Christ the King" on the back. Part of the presentation included an explanation of Luther's Seal: The black cross represents salvation through Christ crucified, the cross within a red heart symbolizes saving faith within one's heart, the heart within the white rose shows the resulting peace and joy in one's life, the rose on a sky-blue field shows that such joy in this life is the beginning of future heavenly joy, and the gold ring surrounding all signifies that the faith is more precious than all worldy goods.
Thirty children attended the event in Punta Gorda, at the home of Jacinto and Tomasa Ramos, members of Corpus Christi Lutheran Church and parents of Armando Ramos, resident pastor at Tierra de Gracia Lutheran Farm in eastern Venezuela. The program was less elaborate there, consisting of children from Punta Gorda singing and dancing to Christian songs under the direction of Maira Ramos, Pastor Armando's sister. The dancing was choreographed by Yelitza Valderrama, Sunday school teacher at Corpus Christi.
After the distribution of gifts at both locations, I received expressions of gratitude, although I had little to do with the organization of either event. In La Caramuca, Jordi Duque and his mother, Thais, both thanked me for the gifts. In Punta Gorda, José Jacinto Ramos, Pastor Armando's younger brother, found a very nice model sports car in his shoebox and said to me, "Thank you, Uncle, for the car". Again, I really did not give him the car, but I guess he, like the others, wanted to personally thank someone, so I said, "You're welcome" on behalf of my fellow North Americans.
Luz Maria's sister Rosaura and her mother, Carmen, are both members of the Baptist church in Barinas, but they have been very supportive of our project and have often donated much of their own time to help us. We also have among our supporters in the community Roman Catholics and Pentecostalists. This is largely because are very few Christian schools of any kind in this entire region and we are fulfilling a need. We are grateful for their friendship. Although we are bound be conscience to be honest about our doctrinal differences with other Christian groups, we also are honest about the beliefs that we have in common.
We touched on this topic when Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod missionary Ted Krey visited us last week. For several years he was pastor of La Fortaleza Lutheran Church in Maracay, but has now passed that responsibility on to a Venezuelan, Marco Valencia. Now Pastor Ted is a full-time theological educator with the Juan de Frias Theological Institute. Since there is no Lutheran seminary in Venezuela, the Juan de Frias Institute offers extension courses in theological education. People work through the course material at home on their own time, in between visits and examinations by a Juan de Frias faculty member.
Pastor Ted came to La Caramuca to begin a course on "Church and Ministry". Among the points we were to consider:
- Properly understood, there is only one true Church. It is comprised of all who have been called by the Holy Spirit into faith in Christ as Lord and Savior in the past, present and future. Although this is the Church against which the powers of hell cannot prevail, it is "invisible" or "hidden" from the unbelieving world while the church that is "visible" as an earthly institution appears weak and fragmented.
- There are outward marks of where the true church is present: The Word of God correctly preached and the sacraments correctly administered according to the Lord's command. But even in church bodies where these marks are found, there are false Christians. But only God, who searches the heart, can judge whose faith is genuine and who is only putting up a front, one reason why the true church is "hidden".
- There are many sects and denominations that call themselves "Christian". Some preach the Word of God in all its purity and rightly administer the sacraments. Some preach the essence of the Word, but deviate from it in some particulars. There may be genuine Christians in these denominations, which is another reason the true Church is "hidden". Then there are groups that call themselves Christian but deny the fundamentals of the faith, such as the divinity of Christ, the holy Trinity or the authority of the Bible. These groups are not Christian at all.
The planting of churches that correctly preach the Word of God and correctly administer the sacraments is part and parcel of the Great Commission. Matthew 28: 19-20 in its entirety reads: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them all the things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age. Amen".
These verses speak of making disciples, baptizing and teaching. All of these imply long-term processes and relationships, not one-time encounters where you deliver a "testimony" and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. Of course it is the action of the Holy Spirit that truly brings people to faith and our own efforts are nothing apart from the work of the Spirit. But the Spirit has promised to work through the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, and since we as the Church are commanded to do Word-and-sacrament ministry, we are responsible for doing this to the best of our understanding and ability. Where there is a shortage of people who are willing or able to answer the call to preach and teach, it is up to fellow believers in other parts of the world to pick up the slack. That is what we are doing in Venezuela.
I should also mention that Pastor Ted started teaching a course on Romans at Corpus Christi and also preached there Sunday, October 22. Ricardo Granado, director of the Juan de Frias Institute, was also on hand to personally hand out certficates to those who had recently completed coursework.
It was another special day for our little congregation out on the frontier.