Seeing Jesus in Guatemala

Our family in Chimaltenango, Guatemala

Our family recently had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful country of Guatemala together with other members of several local churches to work with Bethel Ministries International. We distributed wheelchairs, built houses, visited potential future recipients of Bethel’s services, toured Bethel’s facilities, and did some sightseeing along the way.

The houses we built were simple: Single-room dwellings on a concrete floor with a covered porch for cooking. Simple by North American standards, but a major upgrade compared to the homes in which many people were living with their dirt floors, walls made of scrap wood and metal, and roofs that leaked. We also assembled cookstoves and bunk beds for each home. Our work was not officially complete until we prayed a blessing over the home and family and left them with a Bible.

The families we visited and for whom we helped build houses all happened to be people of faith so the Bible was already a familiar book. They thanked God for us and His blessings, including the abundant blessings they had already received even before we arrived. When I heard them give thanks for all their blessings, I couldn’t help but ask, “What blessings?! You do (or did) not have adequate housing. You don’t have a secure source of income or food. The quality of your drinking water is questionable. Access to even minimal healthcare is an unaffordable luxury.” Yet these new friends of ours were already thankful long before we arrived. They gave thanks for their family. They gave thanks for healings of ailments. They gave thanks for God’s provision in small ways that allowed them to continue for one more day.

It’s ironic that I had to go to a developing country to learn a lesson in gratitude from people who, materially speaking, have much less than me. They see God at work in ways I’m quick to overlook and dismiss as insignificant.

It’s tempting for me to go to a place like Guatemala with the intention of showing the people there how things should be done and what they should believe. It’s frighteningly easy for me to think that Jesus is waiting for me to show up in Guatemala so that He can get to work there through me. While I’m confident God indeed worked through my family, the fact of the matter is that God was working in Guatemala and the lives of the people we met there long before we showed up and He will continue to do so long after we’ve been forgotten. It reminds me how it’s wise to go through life watching for how the Spirit of Jesus is already at work in my world and then prayerfully seeing what I can do to join Him in bringing light and hope to places in which He allows me to also have some influence.


Make me your manger

Christmas Manger

And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed Him in a manger…
This will be a sign to you:
you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger…
So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph,
and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

— Luke 2:7, 12, 16

Come, Lord Jesus, make me a place
where you can rest.

Make me a place where others will see you
and find peace and joy.

Make me a place where the empty
will be fed by your presence.

Make me a place where the unimportant
will find their significance as they gaze at you.

Make me a place where lost people
will see the light of your face.

Make me a place where the hardened
will be softened by your tenderness.

Make me a place where the helpless
will find help through your seeming helplessness.

Make me a place that people will forget when they leave,
caught up in the joy of the One who makes his residence in me.

Make me a manger—
of your grace,
your mercy,
and your life.

Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
when thou camest to earth for me;
but in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
for thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus—
there is room in my heart for thee.

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
proclaiming thy royal degree;
but of lowly birth didst thou come to earth,
and in great humility.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus—
there is room in my heart for thee.
— from Emily E.S. Elliot’s hymn, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”

This was Dale Vander Veen’s daily e-devotional for 21 Dec 2018
which he gracious welcomed me to share with you.
to receive his daily e-devotions yourself.

It’s ok to cry at Christmas

The story of King Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem in his unsuccessful attempt to destroy the newborn King of the Jews might be in the same chapter as the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, but it is rarely told at Christmastime. I’m pretty sure I’ve never sung about it in a Christmas carol nor received a Christmas card with a reference to it. Yet, try as we might to ignore it, there it is told together with the story of the magi (a.k.a. the wise men or “We Three Kings” of whom we like to sing).

Why is such a ghastly story included in the Bible, let alone in our beloved Christmas story? Well, if nothing else, this tragedy illustrates how badly our world needed (and needs) a Messiah. In the pain surrounding death, we need someone to bring life. In the face of arrogance, we need someone to model humility. In the destruction wrought by violence, we need someone to restore peace.

Interestingly, Matthew does not immediately explain why the tragedy in Bethlehem happens. Instead, he provides a lament, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning…” Hearing this cry of pain suggests to me that it’s ok to cry at Christmastime.

Christmas sadness graphic found at

It’s not a holly, jolly Christmas for everyone. For some, there’s an empty chair at the table. For others, the battle with depression clouds even the happiest days. In some homes there’s no holiday from the spiteful fighting or cold hostilities between family members or roommates. Countless 20- and 30-somethings dread being asked in yet another social gathering why they aren’t married or don’t have children as though there’s something wrong with them. Around the world, people live in fear even at Christmastime because of corrupt tyrants, food scarcity, or gang warfare. For all of these kinds of people (yourself included perhaps), the Christmas story includes a paragraph with tears. The tragedy in Matthew’s Christmas story gives us permission to tell the truth about the hurt in our lives and in the world. The tragedy in the Christmas story also gives us permission to lament (like Matthew) the pain in our lives and in the world. And in that we begin to find some comfort, healing, and maybe even joy.

I like how John Witvliet, a professor a Calvin College, puts it: “There is no grace in Herod’s heinous act. But there is grace in Matthew’s truth-telling. Matthew is telling us there is no reason why we should avoid the whole story. We tell it as a candid account of what Jesus came to resolve. We tell it to testify that even this terror cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes.” May God give you grace this Christmas season to both acknowledge the pain in your life and in the world as well as press on to receive the Good News that Jesus’ arrival at Christmas changes everything, making things new and whole while he lovingly holds on tight to you even in – or perhaps especially in – your pain.

These reflections appear in today’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are a summary of what I talked about
at Trinity CRC’s Blue Christmas service last week.

Following Jesus and loving one another through the pain of abuse and trauma

I doubt I’m the first person to ask why the story about Dinah and the sexual assault she experiences is in the Bible. Frankly, there’s a part of me that wishes Genesis 34 didn’t exist. It’s a very sordid story. Some people even refer to it as being R-rated.

So why is this awful story in the Bible? I suspect one reason is to break the silence of Dinah, to break the silence of countless others (both women and men) who have endured abuse and other trauma. Terence E. Fretheim in his commentary on Genesis puts it this way: “This text gives Bible readers permission to talk openly about rape and the sorry history of society’s response, including the silencing ofMeToo graphic found with Google victims” (p. 580). We’ve heard survivors of abuse speak up over the past year with the #MeToo movement giving the church (which, sadly, has a poor reputation when it comes to perpetrators and responding to abuse allegations) an opportunity to speak to the subject. Dinah and every single other survivor were and are precious to the heart of God and their hurts and pains are important.

That’s a summary of the message I gave a few weeks ago on Genesis 34, addressing the subject of walking alongside survivors of abuse and other trauma. Click here to read the entire message (plus a bonus paragraph specifically about #MeToo).

Prodigals (part 4)

In the famous story Jesus tells, both sons disappoint their father. The younger son geographically separates himself from his loving father; the older brother is emotionally and relationally distant. When the younger son finally comes to his senses and returns home, the older son is not ready to embrace him like their father does.

It has been suggested that perhaps the reason why the younger son does not return home sooner is because he knows his critical, unwelcoming older brother awaits him there. It has been further suggested that many runaway prodigals do not return to their biological or church homes today because of their experience with older brothers – whether biological siblings or brothers (or sisters) in Christ. They would rather remain lost than encounter condemnation back at home.

The older son is such a flawed character in Jesus’ story – and it ought to hurt when we see characteristics of him in us that push other people away.

There is one good thing about the flaws in the older brother, though: He puts a desire within us to have and know a better sort of older brother.

A better sort of older brother who we find in Jesus.

As I’ve said before, knowing Jesus as an older brother offers me profound hope: He is a brother who is strong yet gentle, brilliant yet patient, always present and caring. But more than that, he is the brother who restores my relationship with my heavenly Father. For me he was willing to die to ensure that could happen.

Older brother graphic found with Google.jpg

It’s thanks to Jesus that lost sons and daughters (like me and you) are found for now and for eternity.

My series this month on prodigals is indebted
to the profound writing and preaching ministries
of Timothy Keller, who wrote
The Prodigal God, and
Darrell W. Johnson, whose sermons on “The Prodigal Father”
can be downloaded as part of his series entitled
“The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I also deeply appreciate the “Prodigal Son Collection” at
the Calvin College Center Art Gallery.

Prodigals (part 3)

We’re used to calling it the parable of the prodigal son(s). It would be more accurate to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the prodigal father.

The word prodigal literally means to be recklessly extravagant. And it’s true that the younger son is recklessly extravagant with his inheritance until it is all gone and he finds himself friendless and broke. But if we look at the sons’ father, we see that he’s even more recklessly extravagant – He is recklessly extravagant with his grace.

Instead of disowning his younger son or demanding him to repay the debt (something the younger son would never have been able to do), the father hugs and kisses him, throws a banquet for him and invites the whole town to celebrate the homecoming. Instead of sending a servant to demand his older son to co-host the celebration with him (as the original listeners likely expected), the father excuses himself from the party and goes out to the older son to plead with him to join the festivities. In short, the father goes out to find his lost sons. In fact, he keeps constant alert to their return: When the younger son is still a long ways off, the father sees him coming and runs out to embrace him.

In Jesus’ day, it was quite disgraceful for a distinguished gentleman to hike up his robes and run. By running, the father expresses his joy at his son’s return. But it’s quite likely that he also has to run in order to get to his son on time to protect him: Maybe some of the townsfolk feeling like giving the younger son a piece of their mind about how he treated his father; maybe some of the townsfolk want to give the younger son a piece of their fist to teach the younger son a lesson for dishonoring his father. However, by running out to embrace his younger son, the father says to the townsfolk, Whatever you want to do to my son, you first have to do to me. You have to get through me before you can get to my beloved.

Edward Riojas, 'The Prodigal Son,' downloaded from

I read somewhere that sin looks pretty puny and boring compared to God’s grace. Like the grace shown by the father of the two sons, God’s grace for his lost sons and daughters is beyond measurement.  It is recklessly extravagant. In this season of Thanksgiving, I wonder, “How can I ever sufficiently thank my prodigal God?”

”The Prodigal Son” by Edward Riojas.
From the “Prodigal Son Collection” at the Calvin College
Center Art Gallery. For further reading,
check out
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller.

Prodigals (part 2)

In Jesus’ famous story, both sons are lost. The younger son is lost geographically; we can trace his lost-ness with GPS. The older son is relationally lost; we can trace his lost-ness on the cold and hardened dimensions of his heart.

Despite close proximity, the older son is emotionally distant from his father. When he hears a celebration on the homestead, he is not filled with joy, eager to join the festivities; instead he is immediately suspicious about what his father might be up to. What’s more, he refuses to enter the house – an insult to his father, the host. The younger son upon his return from the far country at least has the decency to address his father respectfully; the older son begins his tirade with “Look here!” The older son sees his work on the farm not as a partnership with his father but as slavery. And when he complains that he’s never been able to throw a party for his friends, the older son betrays his feelings against the people currently celebrating – the friends of the family apparently are not his friends.

It’s ironic. By external appearances, the older son is doing everything right: He’s at home with his father (unlike his younger brother); he’s responsible (unlike his younger brother); he respects the family property and reputation (unlike his younger brother).

Yet this isn’t the relationship the father desires. When the older son says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you…” I feel the father’s heart break again. I hear him thinking, I don’t want a slave. I want a son.

Older brother graphic found with Google

This parable reminds me that there are different kinds of lost-ness. Some are obvious, others not so much.

And this parable reminds me of how Jesus comes to save the sinful and the righteous. Apart from Him, both kinds of sons and daughters are lost.

For many of the insights in this series of blog posts,
I am indebted to sermons preached by my
Regent College professor, Darrell W. Johnson.