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.

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.

Rare contentment in an epidemic of affluenza

Celebrating Thanksgiving Day? That’s traditional. Living thankfully year-round? Now that’s counter-cultural!

Our culture encourages you and me to want and grab more and more. It’s practically an economic virtue. Depending on who you ask and what you all include, you’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day whether you’re looking at Snapchat or the logo on your shirt. Combined, all the advertisers in the US spend nearly $200 billion a year to get their products and services in your face. And while each one may offer something unique and even good and useful, together they give the same message: “You will not be content until you buy what we’re selling!”

Advertisers know that, in general, we have a lot of buying power, whether using our savings or racking up credit card debt. More than ever before, they know we have the ability to take them up on their offers. Yet, ironically, never before have people been so discontent. I think it’s crazy the whole phenomenon of Black Friday immediately following (even usurping) Thanksgiving Day. We pause to be thankful for what we have… only hours later to frantically grab for more!

Author Peter Schuurman refers to all this as “affluenza.” He writes: “We are sick. Sick not from some sort of deprivation, but rather from an excess, an overabundance.” In general, we have so much more than we need, but at the same time, our culture trains us to feel like we never have quite enough. To be thankful, to be content is rare in an epidemic of “affluenza.”

I receive the antidote for this sickness from a surprising source: A prison inmate languishing in jail. This inmate’s name is Paul and what he writes to the church in a city called Philippi is just as relevant to the people of Sioux County: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Even in the slammer, Paul experiences more freedom than a lot of people on the outside shackled to their discontent. He has a contentment that gives him joy even in the worst circumstances (like a cruel Roman jail).

What’s the secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Another way you could put it is like this: “I have everything in him who gives me strength.” Paul is so thankful for what Jesus has done for him: He is a forgiven child of God through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. Being blessed like this is better than anything else Paul’s world (or my world) can offer. No matter what happens to him, Paul knows God is with him and for him. That finally gives him contentment.

Contentment will not come from taking advantage of a Black Friday sale. There will always be something new to buy. I’ve learned that contentment comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture within me the reality that Thanksgiving is not simply a day on the calendar but a lifestyle God invites me to experience in Jesus.

Thanksgiving graphic found via Google

I wrote this for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
Of course, my Canadian readers will have celebrated
Thanksgiving Day back in October!

The healing power of being thankful

Autumn thank you graphic found via Google
“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back…
He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him.”
Luke 17:15-16

How many times were you prompted by your parents to say “thank you” when you were little? How many times have you helped your child – or someone else’s – to remember? We know how much a simple “thank you” is appreciated by the giver.

Recently our son’s pet hamster died. We knew it had to happen sometime, but there was no way to prepare our son. There never really is a way to prepare for how we will feel in the face of a loss. So we prayed that God would help us feel better, that we would be comforted. And then my son went one step further: He told me that he had said “thank you” to God for his pet.

That was when the real healing began. His gratitude for a gift – beyond his anger or sorrow at his loss – was beginning to make him whole.

Sometimes we have to give thanks before we are healed in order to become whole.

::  ::  ::

I did not write the meditation above. I read it several years ago in Forward Day by Day and recently came across it again. It profoundly speaks to me about the intricate connections between healing and thanksgiving: When I am ungrateful, do I deprive myself of the healing that Jesus desires for me? When I am ungrateful, am I less whole? I wonder how long it will take after my next sad loss for me to have the same grateful response as the author’s son. I can hear myself asking, “Why me? Why now?” But I wonder when I’ll also say, “Thank you, Lord, for the gift you gave me for a season to steward and enjoy.”

Still thankful

Now that we’re living in the United States, stories of the Pilgrims in the 1600s come to the forefront on Thanksgiving Day. Virginia & Neil Lettinga, presently the transitional pastors at Telkwa CRC, heightened our appreciation of the history of this American holiday…

The Pilgrims arrived in New England in November 1620 – a bad time of year for settling in. The winter was so harsh and unforgiving that they must have wondered whether they actually landed in Canada! Although the harvest the following year was substantial, less than half of the people who arrived the year prior lived to see it. Life for the Pilgrims was hard and the future was anything but promising.

Nevertheless, in 1621, the Pilgrims decided to gather for the first Thanksgiving on American soil. They gave thanks despite a bleak year of illnesses, deaths, and dearth.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe

What a model for us: Choosing to give thanks regardless of circumstances. Do we give thanks only for the things God has given us (as appropriate as that is)? Or does our thankfulness center on who God is and His promises for us, promises fulfilled in Jesus? If we focus on our circumstances, our ongoing thanksgiving will be sporadic and haphazard; focusing on God’s faithfulness inspires “giv[ing] thanks in all circumstances” as the apostle Paul directs.

Two thanksgivings

This year our family will celebrate Thanksgiving Day twice. Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada: We spent the morning worshipping and Thanksgivingthe afternoon enjoying dinner together with friends. Next month we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November.

That we get to celebrate Thanksgiving Day twice this year connects with how I have two specific things I’m currently thankful for, things that may seem contradictory at first.

If you haven’t heard the news yet, we finally received our immigration papers! Finally we can move to Iowa to begin our life and work with the people of Trinity Christian Reformed Church and the community of Rock Valley. You perhaps heard the hooting and hollering for joy from our house when we heard the news last week! (We thought we’d be there by August.) I am very thankful that we can move at last.

Yet part of me is thankful for the delay. It gave us the gift of extra time with family – the four of us, as well as our parents and some of our siblings. And we were able to connect with friends in the Bulkley Valley once (or twice or thrice) more. But I think it gave me another gift, too: The opportunity to learn a bit more to trust God when things don’t go my way. …And to learn that He is indeed trustworthy and that His timing is best. In addition, I learned that asking “Why, Lord, are things not going as we hoped?” is okay. But it’s also good (necessary, even) to ask, “What, Lord, would you have us do while things are not going as we hoped?” Instead of complaining (not that there wasn’t any of that!), I was given more occasions to be a blessing (and hopefully not an annoyance!) in the Bulkley Valley. There are always opportunities to choose to love and serve God and others regardless of circumstances.


One other thing comes to mind about Thanksgiving Day(s):

I sometimes wonder whether we get too excited about Thanksgiving Day. It’s not that we shouldn’t stop to be thankful; it’s just that giving thanks ought to be a daily part of anyone’s life who has been touched by the grace of Jesus. This morning I was reminded by Neil & Virginia Lettinga, interim transitional pastors at Telkwa Christian Reformed Church, that “thanksgiving is our dialect” all year long. On the other hand, perhaps our “concentrated” times of thanksgiving every fall is what propels us to make thankful living more of a daily habit. We need the intentional reminder that we have much to be thankful for. …At least I need the reminder, and more than one, so after today I’m also looking forward to November 22 in Iowa!