This holiday season and Holy Week are the times when I most feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Where I come from, Christmas and Easter are when even people who never darken a church door the rest of the year make an effort to attend at least one worship service. Often they bring visiting family members, so most churches in the United States anticipate annual attendance records during these holidays. I have told Luz María about how congregations will plan special services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day -- many times all of the above. Holy Week often iinvolves special services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, an Easter sunrise service, Easter breakfast at the church, a second and perhaps a third morning service.
This is not the case in Venezuela. Here the Christmas/New Year and Easter holidays mark the lowest church attendance of the year as even people who are otherwise staunch church-goers head for the beach, mountains, or stay at home and party all weekend with family and friends. Last week there was a nightly newscast on Venezuelan television that illustrated this point. The story was about a poll that asked, "What is most important about the Christmas holiday?" Sixty-seven percent of those polled said it was getting together with family and friends. There were a variety of other answers, including one percent for whom Christmas meant "fulfilling a sexual fantasy"! But even the vaguest variation of "Jesus is the reason for the season" did not register.
But this is not a rant. I bring this up because I am happy to report that we bucked the trend and had not only regular Sunday services over the holidays, but also a Christmas Eve service on Dec. 24, a congregational dinner on Dec. 26, and a New Year's Eve service on Dec. 31. Edgar Brito preached on the two Sunday services, while I preached at the special services.
Not only did the services take place, but we had nearly a full house each time. Not only that, but there were first-time visitors as well as long-time members in attendance.
I had reason to reflect on what a blessing this was on Dec. 29 when I received an e-mail from my friend, Frank Durtschy. In 2003, Frank and I underwent volunteer missionary orientation at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. From there I went to Venezuela, while Frank served as term as a volunteer in Brazil. I married a Venezuelan; Frank married a Brazilian. Luz María and I remain in Venezuela; Frank and Erica now live in Missouri.
Frank forwarded a prayer request from Carlos Walter Winterle, a former president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil who now is a missionary in Kenya. Pastor Winterle´s request read as follows:
"Dear friends in Christ:
"We are sharing with you many good news about our work here in Kenya. But today I need to share with you some concerns about what is happening here and ask for your prayers. Many of you are watching on TV about the elections in Kenya and about violence happening here. Because the tumults we decided to not have services tomorrow, December 30. On the suburbs where Pastor
Omodhi is living, Kawangware, 9 people were killed this afternoon. In Kibera, many houses near our church were burnt. (American pastor Dennis Meeker is Pastor there). We called to the families, asking them to stay at home and to pray at home. Can you imagine a pastor saying to his people "Don't come to the church???" We sent them a copy of the sermon; the Gospel for tomorrow tells us about the escape of Jesus to Egypt. His parents were afraid, as many here are afraid. But God took care of His child and is taking care of us all here in Kenya too."
"The American Embassy sent a letter, saying to all American citizens to stay at home. We are not American, but people think so... We are still at our home since Thursday. I hope that on January 1st it will be possible to have the Service. Pray for us."
Then I had further cause for reflection Dec. 31 when the violence in Kenya made international headlines, especially an incident in which about 200 people tried to take refuge in an Assembly of God church. Their pursuers set the church on fire, resulting in the deaths of between 30 and 50 people.
The violence erupted after a controversial national election in Kenya, formerly a showplace of peace and prosperity in Africa. Venezuela, formerly a showplace of peace and prosperity in South America, has experienced political and economic upheaval in recent years, and at the end of December faced a controversial election. But we thank God that here the aftermath of the election has been talk of national reconciliacion and a better future, rather than violence. We thank God that we are able to do the Lord's work freely in Venezuela.
Of course, news of suffering in the world often provokes the classic question, "Why does God permit these things to happen?" This question strikes an emotional chord even in those of us who have much to be thankful for, because of the basic fear that if such terrible things can happen in Africa, for example, why not where we live? Can we trust that God will not take away the little bit of happiness that we have and thrust us into the pit of pain and despair?
The truth is we cannot trust in anything but the promises of God, which include the assurance that all things work toward the good of those that love Him (Romans 8:28). But focusing on these promises, we may be prepared for times of trial in this life.
As I said to the Corpus Christi congregation on New Year's Eve, we all long for a better future and we all fear the worst may come. Faith in the power, wisdom and mercy of God is what makes the difference between hope and despair.
This is the message of hope that I read that evening from St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, verses 9-13:
"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
At Christmastime we celebrate the birth of the child destined to be prophet, priest and king over all the world, anticipating at the same time that His destiny included death by crucifixion. That he was born into a dark and dangerous world we know from the story of Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.
But beyond the darkness of the Cross, we also see the light of His Resurrection and Ascension. God did not exalt the divine Son, who has existed from eternity co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who in His human nature had full communion with the divine and through whom the Son became subject to pain, humiliation and death. So it is that a human name, Jesus, is above all other names and at which every knee must bow, not "Supreme Author and Architect of the Universe", "the Higher Power", "the Force", "the Great Spirit" or anything nice and nebulous.
And as we now are assured that Jesus reigns with God and as God, we also look forward to His Second Coming in glory, when all the great mysteries of good, evil, pain and joy will be resolved. If we follow where He calls us, our suffering and trials in this life will be but pale reflections of His suffering and trial, while our joy in the life to come will reflect His glory.
In meantime, the apostle advises the Philippians -- and us -- to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling", not in the sense of earning God's favor through our own merits, but rather staying on the trail that He has blazed for us, while realizing that we do not deserve to live more than those who have died, that we deserve happiness more than those less fortunate, or that we are less vulnerable to temptation than others. Should we fall, God's arms always will be there to pick us up.
This is our assurance and our basis for hope in 2008.