Visiting churches; meeting Canadians

January 21, 2010

by President Robert Bugbee

I write this on a warm Thursday morning from Chinandega. We spent our first two full days in Nicaragua driving extensively from far in the south (Rivas) near the border to Costa Rica, and then found our way back to Chinandega, fairly far north on the way to Honduras.

Streets are far more alive than in Canada. People are out in large numbers on bicycles, horses, and little taxis that look more like glorified golf carts. They are also there as pedestrians, day and night, which makes driving rather stressful, because there are no broad shoulders near the road, and the driver always has to be alert to make sure to avoid them, especially in the dark.

We visited three isolated congregations during Wednesday’s travels. They meet in very simple chapels constructed from cement blocks. One of them, called “Cristo Rey” (Christ the King) was only accesible by driving on a road which is really a river bed, but which is open to traffic because this is the dry season and there is no water in it!

We were gladdened to meat a team from Epiphany Lutheran Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario, which has taken a “working holiday” to assist with construction on Christo Rey Church. Nearby stands the peasant home where meetings are currently held until the church is ready for occupancy. Impressive work is done in many of these places with school children, who attend public school for half-days, and then come five days a week to Christian instruction in our congregations. I’ll tell more about this later.

Rice, beans, shredded beef or chicken and plaintain chips form the backbone of daily meals. The food is straightforward, sensible, and tastes good. We’re being very kindly hosted. These are busy days as everyone here at the mission centre prepares for the opening of the Nicaraguan synod convention this Saturday and Sunday. So I’ll have to close it off for now. God bless all who read these lines, and who are carrying Dr. Neitzel and me in their prayers.

“Mas alegria en el cielo…” (“More joy in heaven…”).

January 21, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel, LCC mission executive

It has been a real joy and blessing to visit the LCC mission fields in Nicaragua with Dr. Ralph Mayan and President Robert Bugbee.

The first day of visit among several activities we joined Missionary Rufino at a mission site in Rivas he has just started. There were about 40 people in the front yard of a house on a street corner. The pastor’s reading was from the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 15. As he was reading and sharing about the text the phrase “there is more joy in heaven for one sinner who repents…” was very touching as the message of the Gospel was being proclaimed.

Try to figure it out! It is impressive, amazing, almost indescribable – the only thing that makes it clear to us is the grace of God shining powerfully through His Son Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. There is joy in heaven and there is joy in the mission fields right now as the message of salvation is being proclaimed joyfully by our missionaries, in faithfulness and commitment and as people are gathered by the Holy Spirit in worshipping Lutheran communities.

We thank and praise the Lord for the seed of His Word which is being sown and for the response He’s raising in peoples’ lives.

LCC executives arrive in Nicaragua

January 19, 2010

by President Robert Bugbee


I write these lines on a bright and warm Tuesday morning from Managua, capital city of Nicaragua. Leonardo Neitzel and I arrived here last night after flights from Winnipeg, Chicago and Miami.

It was already dark, and now the morning light shows me I am totally surrounded by palm trees! We have stayed at a very comfortable hotel across from the international airport. Because it is warm, the rooms are really just cottages lined up along “corridors” which are outdoor walkways. Two little cats play together just outside my door.

This morning we will be picked up and taken to the mission centre at Chinandega, several hours west of here. Then we will begin seeing the work of our church “up close”. We will try to write later, but for now, please hold these ten days in your prayers. It is a glad blessing to be “on the ground” in Nicaragua, and to look forward to the encouragement that always comes from seeing how the Word of Christ comes alive!

Robert Bugbee, President

Time in Cambodia

January 17, 2010

by Dr. Edward Kettner

On Friday afternoon, January 8, the group flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Siem Reap is the site of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.  The earliest of these temples were built in the 12th century, during the time Hinduism was the chief religion of Cambodia.  The temples reflect the stories in the Hindu writing known as the Ramayana.  We spent Saturday touring the various temple sites, going from one to another by tuktuk, looking at the unusual buildings and carvings.  This tour helped us to increase our understanding of the religious background of the region, though the current predominant religion in Cambodia is Buddhism.

On Sunday we went by bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a journey of about six hours.  On Sunday evening we attending worship at a local congregation, with the service being led by an LCMS missionary       stationed in Cambodia, and with Dr. Harms preaching the sermon.  On Monday morning we took a van to a village about 80 kilometers outside of Phom Penh, where we met members of the congregation, particularly the children of the congregation, along with the pastor and deaconess who serve them. The children of the community greeted us with a short play, acting out the story of the Good Samaritan for us.  We were told that because Christianity has come to this village the incidence of alcoholism and domestic violence is far less than it is in other villages.  Though there is a strict male-female hierarchy in the society, it is the women who are strongest in their gospel proclamation.  The deaconesses bring the faith to the women in the villages, and by their influence their husbands also come to know Christ.  In this particular village the pastor has moved to a Lutheran understanding of the faith because of the work of the deaconesses.  Pictures attached show the students in dialogue with the people of the village, and the Pastor, his wife, his daughter, and others.

Seminary classes began Monday afternoon, taking place at a guest house near the Phnom Penh airport.  The class contains both pastors and deaconesses, who are all eager learners.  Once again, the Edmonton students each took part in leading one of the class sessions.  They find in a challenge to work through a translator and to make sure that what they teach can be understood by those coming from a Cambodian culture.  When the class as part of their devotions one day sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the Khmer language, it really brought home the fact that the good news of Jesus is meant for people of all nations.  Attached pictures show some of the deaconesses in classes, students teaching the class, and the entire class along with the Edmonton students.

During the week, the students also had the opportunity to to visit the infamous “Killing Fields,” where many people had been put to death by the followers of Pol Pot, who had attempted to reinstate a completely rural agrarian society in Cambodia through the “re-education” and murder of anyone deemed to be an “intellectual.”  This sobering experience showed them the depths of human corruption that Christ came to redeem us from.  They also visited the church at the city dump, again seeing how people in terrible poverty are nevertheless able to worship God with dignity.

Tell me the stories of Jesus and show me where they happened!

January 16, 2010

by Ian Adnams

Think back to Sunday school and all the stories of Jesus. His call to Peter, James and John to become fishers of men. Healing the centurion’s servant and the man lowered from the roof by his friends. Giving fishing lessons to fishermen and then preparing a barbecued fish breakfast for them. Or feeding 5000 and turning the Law upside down with a series of blessings found in the Beatitudes.

I’ve seen the places where this happened. Today we spent the day in Galilee. Naturally, there were churches built on several sites, but with the land’s history of invasion and conquest, you can see the sense in trying to build something to protect special places.

We visited the place where Jesus taught the Beatitudes and where He fed 5000 people. These may not be the exact places, but we do know they were nearby. In each place, someone from the group read a passage from the Gospels relating to the site. Around us in many locations were other tour groups from places like Nigeria, Poland and the U.S all doing the same thing. The Holy Catholic Church meets in Israel!

Capernaum was the most interesting place. It is one of the few sites where what’s left for us to see is the ruins of what existed in Jesus’ time, as opposed to ruins left by an invading force. From historical evidence archaeologists have identified the house of Simon Peter. It is very close to the Synagogue where Jesus taught. From the shape of the building, archaeologists believe the house eventually became a church, likely starting as a small congregation meeting in Peter’s home.

One interesting detail our tour guide pointed out was the nature of the stone construction. Whereas the Jerusalem area is mostly constructed from limestone, most of the ancient buildings in Galilee are made from volcanic rock. The gray basalt foundation of the Synagogue is still visible, even though a rebuilding at some point used limestone. The ruins of the many homes are also gray basalt.

Of course the sea of Galilee figures prominently in all the stories and it was moving to stand on the beach where Jesus reconciled with Peter after the resurrection and to reach down and touch the sea’s clear water.

An afternoon boat ride on the lake was equally memorable. First, knowing that 16 of the 22 passengers were Canadians, the crew hoisted the Canadian flag to the playing of O Canada through the sound system. Then, with a clear sky, calm lake, the shores of Galilee in view (including many of the places we visited earlier in the day) through the sound system came “How Great Thou Art” followed by “Amazing Grace.” After ten days of hearing how Christians are trying to bring hope to what seems like a hopeless political situation, and visiting key locations in the life of our Lord, the two songs touched the heart and brought to a fitting conclusion an encounter we will never forget.

Tomorrow we say good bye to the land but not to the memories, education and inspiration we have all gained. Sunday evening we arrive in Geneva, Switzerland. There we will learn firsthand how the Lutheran World Federation and Actions of Churches Together (ACT) and working to bring hope and relief to those suffering in Haiti.

Into a land flowing with milk and honey

January 16, 2010

by Ian Adnams

Friday we moved from the Judea Mountains of Jerusalem into the northern part of Israel. There are still mountains, but green, broad fertile valleys provide a welcome interruption in the landscape.

 The Jerusalem area, including Bethlehem and other surrounding communities is crowded with people and cars. It is, after all, a major centre, but the narrow, winding streets set into the mountains can make you feel a bit claustrophobic.

 North of Jerusalem you find a different landscape altogether. Driving along a well constructed highway you try to imagine how it would have been to cover the same distances on foot. One of the highways actually follows the route from Jerusalem to Jericho used by the Romans.

 Our first stop was the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, at the port city of Caesarea, not to be confused with Caesarea Phillipi, an inland city. This port city figures prominently in the book of Acts. In addition to the port, Herod the Great also built an amphitheater a portion of which is still intact, and a hippodrome for chariot racing. Caesarea was an important place during Roman times, but slowly fell into disuse over the centuries. A large number of ruins are underwater as the sea level has risen. Fishermen first noticed the blocks underwater which led to major excavations and reconstruction. During the archeological work they found marble statues in the water. When the Persians invaded they tried to destroy everything Roman, including statues, which Islam does not allow.

 Later, a drive up yet another mountain’s windy road brought us to the top of Mount Carmel, where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to ask their god to set fire to a sacrifice without human intervention. He wanted to prove to the children of Israel that the God who loved them was a living God and they should not be following Baal. After the prophets of Baal failed, Elijah made a similar sacrifice, put the wood in place and the dowsed the whole thing with so much water it filled the trench surrounding the altar. After praying to tThis is one of my favourite episodes from the Bible, so to stand on the place where it happened was quite the experience.

 From that vantage point we could look down on the valley of Armegeddon, a beautiful stretch of land, green with produce.

 Our final stop took us up yet another mountain to the bustling city of Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation. At the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a village of about 200 people and maybe 50 homes. It is so obscure and off the beaten path that it doesn’t rate a mention in any extra-biblical texts.

 The main attraction in Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation, a modern church of 1950s vintage. It is a stunning piece of architecture dedicated to Mary. Below the church are the ruins of what many believe is the house of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s difficult for us to appreciate the concept of historical layers.

 Many of these biblical locations were built in Roman times, destroyed by the Persians, rebuilt by the Byzantines, destroyed again by the Persians, and rebuilt again by the Crusaders. After that, the Ottoman empire and the British Empire had their turn! Our tour guide talked of one place where there were 24 layers of previous inhabitants in one location.

 This constant conquering has not only shaped architecture and the landscape, but also the peoples who populate Israel/Palestine. So much religious history comes with the territory that it will take some very wise people to bring about a lasting peace’

Our Week in Thailand

January 16, 2010

by Dr. Ed Kettner

During the week in Thailand day began as students took a turn at leading opening devotions, and each student took a turn teaching to the Thai students. Attached pictures show yours truly along with seminarian Stephen Bartlett working with Pastor Sompong, our translator.

During the times when they were not teaching they had the opportunity for preparations, and for visiting other mission sites in Bangkok. Of special interest and appeal was a visit to a day care centre run by one of the congregations. The person in charge, a young woman by the name of Goi, gave the students an opportunity to meet the children and to also ask her some questions about how this enterprise gives opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel.
There were opportunities during the week for the students to get out and see the city of Bangkok. Missouri Synod deaconess interns Betsy and Sarah took the group to the major shopping mall on evening and to Chinatown on another, and the students had the opportunity to try bargaining for goods with local merchants. This helped them see the challenges of communicating cross culturally, and provided opportunities for discussion about differences in Eastern and Western values. The challenges of moving across a huge city were met in a single evening as the group traveled by cab, subway and tuk-tuk (a rickshaw-like conveyance powered by motorcycle) to get to Chinatown.
On Thursday evening, Dr. and Mrs. Harms had the group over to their apartment complex for dinner. Seminarian Mike Montague led a Bible Study on the account of the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the Gospel for Epiphany. This was quite appropriate since the theme of the Gospel is Jesus as light to the nations.

Covering the sacred sites

January 14, 2010

by Ian Adnams

Part of our tour includes visits to sites related to the life of Christ. Two are the most prominent: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jersualem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Our tour guide, Said Mreibe gave us a thorough history lesson about The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The structure is built above both Mount Calvary (Golgotha) and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where Jesus’ body lay after His crucifixion. The historic authenticity of the two locations is well-established, but because of a series of partial demolitions by conquerors, rebuilding by Romans, partial destruction by Persians, and then major renovations by Crusaders, all that is left to see is the tip of Calvary and a replica of a shrine situated over a replica of the tomb. The real tomb is several metres below and made inaccessible thereby making it ‘safe’ according to the Crusaders.

Controlling the church building are the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches. Each is responsible for keeping its area repaired and clean. It is an uneasy custodianship. Don’t dare let your floor mop clean across the negotiated borders or there can be trouble. The discussion about who would unlock and who would open the main door became so heated they solved the issue by hiring two Muslim families; one unlocks the door, the other opens it.

The church itself represents the three Christian groups. The Orthodox sections are ornate with icons, gold leaf, and lanterns hanging everywhere. The Roman Catholic sections are much more understated with paintings and mosaics. The Armenian section is neglected. At some point there was a fire in the chapel that was never repaired.

The preservation and ornamentation represent centuries of history and incredible skill. However I found it all distracting from the essential meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. Perhaps it was because the church was crowded with tourists and a lot of noise.

This was not the case, however, at the Church of the Nativity. We arrived with our tour guide late in the afternoon after visiting the Shepherd’s Field just outside Bethlehem. There were people in twos and threes wandering around, but we were the only group. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this church is overseen by the three major Christian groups in Bethlehem. The ornamentation was similar, and the church had gone through renovations over the centuries. It is also built on top of the place of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to most nativity scenes, the “stable” was really a cave which not only housed animals but usually the whole family. We descended 16 steps into the cave.

There were two areas, one, the place Jesus was born, the other where the manger would have been. Again, the authenticity is well established and, like many of the others in the group, I touched the place where Jesus was born. Then, something wonderful and memorable happened. We stood in the cave where Jesus was born and sang “Away in a Manger.” (In retrospect, I wish we could have sung “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as we stood at Calvary and then the victorious “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” at the tomb.)

I had heard the warning that once you visit the Holy Land you will never read the Bible the same way. For me, I don’t think I will sing Christmas carols or Easter hymns the same way!

With great boldness, Palestinian style.

January 14, 2010

by Ian Adnams

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land operates elementary and high schools in Palestine. Depending on the location, the majority of students could be Christian or Muslim. The point is that they are taught together and learn to understand each other. These classrooms become a beacon for hope for the future since so much of the tension here is based on ignorance of ‘the other.’ Unfortunately, this does not extend to Palestinians knowing Israelis, the source of greatest tension. However, it does bring about a unity among Palestinians.

In the two schools we visited, the principals told us of the high value Palestinians place on education. The vast majority of graduates from the Lutheran schools continue to university. Some return to the schools as teachers. The downside of this excellence in academics comes as young people take their pursuit of education out of the country where they can study and eventually live. More than once we have heard of the impact this has on the Palestinian Christian community. Education is often a passport out of the reality of life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Once settled in North America or Europe, the Palestinians apply to bring other family members to join them. The Christian population in the Palestinian community is slowly declining and there are real fears for the future of the church.

For those who remain, there seems a genuine desire to impact the Palestinian community. One example we saw was the International Centre in Bethlehem where the motto is “that we may have life and have it more abundantly.” The pastor who established the centre, Rev. Mitri Rehab wanted to engage the community around his church, Lutheran Christmas Church, with a message of hope to counteract what he calls “a mentality of whining.” With less than $350, a sparesly furnished office and a few volunteers, the pastor began the centre which is now the third largest private employer in the West Bank. “God has blessed us beyond belief,” he says.
The centre addresses the issues of Palestine three ways:
1) civic engagement by
a. teaching classes to 120 school teachers on subjects like democracy and elections
b. supporting the Christian community through research and leadership training
c. promoting Palestinian culture
d. producing television programs for local TV and satellite broadcast

2) Health and Wellness focusing on preventative medicine especially diabetes, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression with activities such as yoga classes, swimming and dance. The centre has also established a 500-plus member seniors program; young families group and young adults group. The centre started the first sports program for women and the soccer team is scheduled to play in the Palestine championship game.

3)Lutheran College grants a two-year associates degrees in documentary film making; arts and music. This week the centre signed an agreement with five LCMS Concordia Universities to begin providing graduate courses in such areas as leadership,education, and sports. The current program also includes continuing education for more than 1000 students, aged 17 to 87 years old; and leadership courses to 1000 students.

Pastor Raheb says the Christian community has to “carve its place in the community.” He dreams of the day when the International Centre will offer its message of hope throughout all the Palestinian communities. He also noted that the centre has done all this without funding from Lutheran development agencies.

Visiting the centre, you catch the message of hope present in the staff, many of whom are members of the Lutheran congregation. Fifty percent of the students are youth or young adults, a demographic where the unemployment rate is 67 percent. The pastor says, “We have to be bold in what we do in order for Christianity to survive in a difficult situation.”

Some random thoughts and observations

January 11, 2010

by Ian Adnams

Since arriving in Israel I’ve written about the activities in which we’ve been involved and just a bit about my impressions. The other day I began noting some things that have surprised me.

First is hills: housing perched on the sides, others covered in rock and olive trees. When I say hills, I’m not talking about the gently rolling kind, I mean the steep mini-mountains. I don’t think we’ve travelled a flat section of road since leaving the Tel Aviv area on the coast.

To make the experience more exciting, the interior roads of places like Bethlehem are barely able to accommodate a car and we’re riding in a full-size touring coach. So combine steep hills with narrow streets and sharp corners and you literally thank God for the skills of your bus driver.

On top of the mountains there is either a church or cell tower, maybe both. In some areas the church tower is replaced with a minaret. Joining them on the skyline are construction cranes. There is a lot of construction going on everywhere, even in the Palestinian areas, although not as much as Jerusalem.

While the city streets are winding and steep, the area is served by well-constructed multi-lane highways around and sometimes through the mountains. Of course with every good highway system comes traffic jams.

Ninety-nine percent of buildings are either built with limestone blocks or have a limestone block siding. Occasionally you see some red brick walls and red roofs, but the beige limestone colour is consistent throughout the region. One way to tell whether you are looking at an old or new building is to look for the electrical servicing. If all the wires are outside, it’s an older building.

Most buildings have solar water heating on the roofs and large black cisterns along side to store the heated water. When you live in such a hot climate, it makes sense to use the solar energy to heat your water.

The infamous ‘security wall’ which segregates Israelis from Palestinians is a source of heated discussion, depending on which side one lives. It is against the law for Israelis to enter the Palestinian areas, but Palestinians can enter and leave Israel after going through check points. We were stuck at a checkpoint today going from Bethlehem back into Jerusalem. After waiting in line for about a half hour, we arrived at the checkpoint and an Israeli military police officer came onto the bus, checked our passports and wished us a good day. Those in private vehicles undergo a more thorough search and questioning.

Something we have all noticed is the number of stray cats. They are everywhere, likely keeping down the rodent population. Many are perched near their favourite food source – the garbage bins. Some look as if they thrive while others look every bit the stray.

This is a modern area, undergoing incredible changes both politically and socially. All we can pray is that whatever comes of peace talks that each party is treated with fairness and respect.

If you have any questions or comments, please use the blog’s comment area.

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