Category Archives: Mexico

My brother’s death: A year later

Today, March 16th, marks the one year anniversary of the death of my brother Ben. He was 28 years old.

This has easily been the most stinging grieving experience I’ve gone through so far. It got me reflecting on ways that our culture experiences grief, as well as the ways grief is processed in Mexico, where I spent a number of years.

Mexico has a number of traditions surrounding the mourning of a loved one who has passed away. The deceased person is usually buried within 48 hours of his or her death, but family members and friends gather for nine consecutive nights at the home of the deceased one to carry out the “novenario”. An “altar” with flowers, candles, religious objects and photos is set up for the family member who has been lost. Those gathered each night say prayers for the deceased person and eat together. At the end of the nine days of the novenario a religious ceremony takes place, with those in attendance taking up the flowers from the altar and carrying them to the grave of the deceased afterwards, followed by a special meal together.

Further traditions and rituals are prescribed for various points of time throughout the first year and beyond. These traditions give structure to the mourning process. They ensure nothing is rushed; everything happens at its prescribed time throughout the year.

One important ritual following the death of a loved one is the “cabo de año” taking place on the first anniversary of the person’s passing. At the cabo de año family members attend a mass in memory of their loved one. Afterwards they gather for a celebratory meal together.

After the cabo de año, Mexican tradition says family members of the deceased should go back to wearing colored clothing and no longer wear black. The black bow that has hung over the entrance to the house of the deceased, signifying his or her passing, is taken down. The family member who was lost will continue to be honored, however, each year on the Day of the Dead.

Though grieving is a fluid process that can continue in some ways for many years, the cabo de año marks a transition and some level of resolution to the grieving process.

Now one year removed from the passing of my brother, I can really appreciate the rituals and traditions that accompany the mourning of a loved one in Mexico. I’m not sure that most of us Americans are all that good at grieving the loss of a loved one. It feels at times like we try and gloss over or sugarcoat the painful reality we’re experiencing, and the process can feel rushed.

At some funerals it seems more time is spent trying to get God off the hook for taking away our loved one than is spent remembering the loved one and acknowledging the pain of losing him or her. After the service is done, and possibly a potluck, precious little structure exists in our culture to facilitate the ongoing mourning process.

Those first few grief-stricken days I spent together with my family for my brother’s funeral were incredibly healing. The pain was intense, but simply being together and sharing the pain with one another felt like it did wonders. We laughed and cried together as we shared stories and celebrated Ben’s life. It didn’t seem like anyone tried to dismiss the pain we were experiencing with a trite comment about him being in a better place or, “We can’t understand why God chooses to do these things, so we just have to trust Him.” We were in the moment, we felt the pain, we mourned the loss, and we shared it together.

Here are a few other thoughts and reflections I have related to Ben’s death and the grieving process:

  • As stated, the freedom to simply experience the pain and mourn our loss was paramount. I think Americans in general and evangelicals in particular need to learn better to feel pain when pain is real and raw without having to try and quickly make it all better or explain it away. These things just take time, and I think on some level it’s dehumanizing to pretend that it’s okay that someone close to us just died. I’m deeply comforted by the conviction that my brother has entered into an eternity in God’s direct presence, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay with our losing him at such a young age.
  • On that note, I don’t buy into a way of defining God’s sovereignty that says that God is the orchestrator behind everything like this that happens. God is a good God, but the aftereffects of the curse are such that we live in a world where crappy things happen sometimes. It doesn’t mean God is the one doing the crappy things, and I don’t think it’s an offense to God to feel that losing my brother is crappy. Because God is sovereign and God is good, He can work the most awful situations for good (and He has certainly brought much good out of Ben’s death). But I’d still prefer to have Ben here for many more decades, and I refuse to blame God for his death.
  • The first week or so after Ben’s death felt like a very healthy time of grieving for me as I was with family and friends. Among other things, it’s amazing how much comfort came from having my two older daughters along with me on the trip out to Kansas for the funeral…seriously, so much of it is about just being with loved ones in painful times. In the months following the funeral, though, I felt more disconnected from loved ones. I sensed that my spirit had more grieving to do than was happening on a conscious level during the days. On a handful of occasions over the past year I woke up at night crying hard in my sleep for my brother. This, too, felt very healing.
  • I appreciate that we had an open casket funeral. I’m fairly uncomfortable with death and dead bodies, and I’ll wager that the majority of the people reading this are as well. But I never got to say goodbye to Ben while he was alive, and seeing his body in the casket somehow seemed to make it a little better. Even though I didn’t believe his spirit was there anymore, the day of the funeral I hung around his casket as long as possible before the lid was closed. I wanted to see Ben, and I put off saying goodbye as long as I possibly could. I dreaded taking him to the cemetery and leaving him there, and that was indeed the hardest part of the entire process.
  • Ben died of a medical event associated with the epilepsy from which he suffered most of his life. I believe that Jesus has broken the curse of sickness and death that entered the world in the Garden of Eden. Losing Ben has strengthened my resolve that we who belong to Jesus must keep pressing until we walk in such a measure of victory that everyone upon whom we lay hands is healed. I believe it is part of our inheritance in Jesus. I don’t think someone like Ben should ever have to die for the reasons he died. That doesn’t mean I carry around any guilt over Ben (or anyone else) not having been healed – I don’t. But nor am I willing to accept people being sick and dying when Jesus has set us free. It’s not about beating ourselves up over what we lack in our experience, it’s about accepting an invitation Jesus is giving us to a fuller kind of life. We must press forward.
  • Many people would think being one of six siblings sounds like a very big family, but it’s amazing how small that number feels when we used to be seven. We’ll always be missing a part of us until we’re together again.
  • I’ve never been prouder of Ben than I was the week of his funeral, hearing numerous accounts of ways he touched lives, inspired people, and persevered in the face of discouragement. It was so encouraging. I felt like hope was the word God gave me the day of his funeral. I can’t imagine mourning a loved one while having no hope.

My grieving process has included doing a lot of talking sometimes. I’ve continued it here, in written form. I hope something I’ve shared will resonate with you or encourage you in some way wherever you’re at. There may also be a thing or two I’ve said here that rubs someone the wrong way. That’s okay. The important thing isn’t that we all agree, the important thing is that we’re all together. That’s what makes grieving bearable.

Unforgiveness

“August 22–Neither forgotten nor forgiven”

“Blood does not get erased”

These phrases are prominently scrawled in red graffiti right now on the central square of our state’s capital.  Slogans such as these regularly pop up in our region, visible signs of the anger some have towards the government.  Graffiti-marred buildings receive fresh coats of paint, only to be vandalized again within weeks.  On and on the cycle goes, with slighted people insisting they will never let the government off the hook.

Unforgiveness is a significant spiritual stronghold in our region. Feuds dating back over a hundred years between villages flare up with regularity, leaving new blood spilled each time.  Family members refuse to speak to one another for years over wrongs committed long ago.  Villagers still carry noticeable bitterness over the Spanish conquest of the 1500s.

Wrongs are exactly that–wrong.  No excuse exists ever for hatred, injustice, and oppression of one person or group towards another. But until the cycle of unforgiveness is broken, a people always live in bondage.  Every person who walks this planet has wronged another and been wronged by another.  Only the forgiveness made available through Jesus Christ breaks this cycle and brings freedom.

Once I heard a Mixed-language Bible translator in our region relate a legend told in the villages where she was working.  I don’t remember the whole story, but the gist of it was something like this: A boy is wronged by people close to him. Later, through an encounter with an animal in the mountains, he gains power and wealth.  His mom then comes to him and asks his forgiveness.  His short, blunt answer to her is, “No.”  End of story.

Jesus told a story of his own about forgiveness, recorded in Matthew 18:23-35:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents [this is, millions of dollars] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

The servant fell on his knees before him.  ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [that is, a few dollars]. He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in.  ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

The Mixed people of southern Mexico aren’t the only ones who struggle with unforgiveness.  Maybe some of us also need to forgive someone so that our heavenly Father can forgive us as well.

Please join us in praying the spirit of unforgiveness in our region will be broken.  Pray that people here come to know the loving forgiveness of Jesus Christ and begin to forgive one another from the heart.

The importance of economics

I’m increasingly convinced economics are a key to the spiritual transformation of our region.  A few thoughts:

  • The Bible talks more about money than any other subject except love.  It talks more about money than about heaven and hell combined.
  • The indigenous people here are in bondage to a spirit of poverty.  That doesn’t just mean they’re poor.  It means they stay poor because they have very little belief they’re capable of helping themselves.  Five hundred years after the Spanish conquest, they’re still a conquered people.  They largely have a mentality that other people owe them something.  Instead of taking initiative to improve their situation, they wait for handouts from the government and from charitable groups.  It’s a spiritual bondage.
  • In many villages, 50% (or more) of working age men are in the U.S. because the villages have no economy and most jobs in towns like ours don’t pay enough.  The men stay gone for years at a time.  This is having a devastating impact on the region.  Wives are trying to support and raise families as single parents, and thousands of kids are growing up without fathers.  Very young kids are being left at home alone for hours at a time while Mom works.  In many cases, a husband starts a new family in the U.S. and never returns.
  • This area has a wealthy class of small business owners who are doing quite well, but they don’t pay their employees enough to live on.  This is a spiritual problem (James 5:1-4).
  • What economy this region does have (because it’s not in abject poverty) is a house of cards.  It is entirely dependent on outside sources, those being government handouts and money earned in the U.S., Canada, or other parts of Mexico.  When the world economy collapses, our region will take it on the chin unless it begins to utilize its own natural resources more effectively.  (This is difficult, because the government owns rights to most of the natural resources.)
  • The villages are built on agriculture, but the agriculture is not doing well.  Corn is the king crop, yet villages are buying corn grown in other places from the government at subsidized prices.  The agriculture must improve.
  • Most churches in the region gravitate strongly to a model of having paid clergy (which is perfectly biblical).  The trouble is pastors aren’t getting paid nearly enough to support a family, so they’re leaving their churches to work in the U.S. and the churches are then falling apart.  One issue here is the churches believe they can’t be obedient in giving due to their poverty – another spiritual problem.  See the example of the Macedonian churches, whose “extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:1-4).
  • The other issue is the churches thinking their pastors should do all the work of the ministry since they’re being paid.  This is NOT biblical (Ephesians 4:11-13).  While churches are growing in obedience in giving, pastors could get more people involved in ministry and remove a huge stumbling block for the people by supporting themselves – IF they had good jobs with which to support themselves.

Those are some scattered thoughts; things that burden me as I look at our region and things that are affecting what we do.  If you’ve wondered where projects like a well drilling business fit into our church planting ministry, the above points are some of the pieces to the puzzle.

corn field

Insights into the spirit world in my friend’s village

My friend Don P’s people group, like most in our area, is quite animistic.  Animists have a far greater awareness of spiritual realities than the average westerner.  As I spent time with Don P on Saturday, he shared some interesting things:

First, he told me a story about the small lake they have in their village.  The lake is–or at least used to be–enchanted, according to the locals.  He said the water would move as if it were alive, and sometimes a wave would come up and grab people and drown them.  Two Catholic priests came to their village many years ago, and the first one was grabbed by the lake and drowned.  The second priest went and knelt beside the lake, Don P said, and began to pray over it.  After he did, the enchantment was broken.  The water ceased to move as if it were alive; now it is still like a normal lake.

Don P went on to relate a story his grandfather told him.  He said the village used to have five lakes, but now it only has two.  Maybe a hundred years ago, a village belonging to a neighboring people group was fighting with Don P’s village.  According to Don P’s grandfather, they had people who were good at casting spells and putting curses on others.  Through witchcraft, they were able to take some of the lakes from Don P’s village and have them brought to their own village.  From a distance, they also caused the (Catholic, I think) church building in Don P’s village to catch on fire.

One other interesting conversation we had was about belief in naguals (pronounced na-wals).  Most villages in our area that have this belief say a nagual is a person who turns into an animal at night.  In Don P’s village, it’s a little different.  They don’t think naguals are people; they think they’re devils.  He said a nagual looks like a person, but its knees don’t bend.  He went on to mention that his wife had just seen one a couple of days before near there house.  It was howling.  I asked how she knew it was one, and he said because it was shaking a large tree back and forth.  The tree is far too big for a person to shake.

Anecdotes such as these are common in the villages of our area.  Though the people are Catholic in name, their religion far more closely resembles animism, because they hold many of the beliefs they had before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  The advantage in sharing the gospel with animists (and there are disadvantages, too) is they don’t have to be convinced of spiritual realities.  They are already aware of them.

Mexico and Mother’s Day

This past Sunday was one of the rare times that Mother’s Day hits on the same day in both the United States and Mexico. The U.S. always celebrates it on a Sunday, while in Mexico it is always on May 10.

In Mexico, Mother’s Day is celebrated in much the same way as in the U.S. People give gifts and flowers to their moms and often prepare special meals or take them out to eat. Many restaurants give moms a free meal on the 10th. Our family enjoyed a nice meal at a restaurant with our upstairs neighbors, who wanted to celebrate with us.

Mother’s Day is a fairly big occasion around here. Here’s what a Mexican shared with me one time about mothers:

Mexico has had a lot of problems with fathers, so Mexicans aren’t as attached to their dads, but boy do they love their moms. Mothers really carry the family in Mexico. Father’s Day isn’t much of a big deal around here, but Mother’s Day is a really big deal. That’s why Mexicans are so attached to the Virgin of Guadalupe (a representation of Mary, the mother of Jesus). Many people have a hard time relating to God the Father, but they feel a strong affinity to the Virgin as mother.

I have observed the above to be true. It provides a real challenge in making disciples of Christ. About a month and a half ago, I visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and was blown away by the devotion of the pilgrims who had come for a blessing.

Behind the scenes in our town’s cathedral (photos)

Until this past summer, I had never been inside our local Catholic church. In the past, we stayed away because we didn’t want to upset local evangelicals. Now we’re not overly concerned with that, but I still didn’t want to go waltzing in there by myself, because that can be frowned upon by some of the local Catholics. Having a Catholic intern this summer, though, gave me the perfect opportunity to have him show me around.

I learned that our town’s church is more than just a big sanctuary. It has an inner courtyard and a number of other rooms I never knew were there. One section looks like it could have been a monastery or convent in the past, though I have never actually heard this about it. I’ll have to ask around. It would fit the pattern of other cathedrals in our area, though.

I am told by locals that our cathedral is one of the three oldest in our region of the state, dating to about 1520. It was apparently constructed in the years immediately following the Spanish invasion.

Here are a few photos:

A couple of different views of the inner couryard. In the second, you have a rear view of the bell tower at the front of the building.

A really old painting, though I’m not sure of what. It looks like it could be Jesus breaking bread.

Statue of a Catholic saint. I don’t know who, and my Catholic friend who was with me wasn’t exactly sure either.

A few more Independence Day photos

This is a large assembly in our town on Mexican independence day, September 16. It took place at the explanada, which is an open parade ground area next to our main government building. Many of the schools in town were there, uniformed and in formation, as were the town president and many other government officials:

The assembly at the explanada was followed by a parade through town. Here are a few photos from the parade:

Mexican Independence Day

Last Tuesday, September 16, was Mexico’s independence day. The fun begins on September 15, when cities have a large nighttime celebration with fireworks. This is capped by the grito (which means the “yell”, basically), usually at midnight, where a leader yells things like, “Viva México!” and “Viva la independencia!”, and the crowd responds by yelling, “Viva!”

The entire month of September is a patriotic month in Mexico, filled with different activities. Here are a few photos from the past couple of months and the night of the grito:

(By the way, my camera phone isn’t so impressive at night…well, or anytime, for that matter.)

These are from the daily flag lowering ceremony that was taking place at our central town park, which is right in front of our main government building

And a few photos from the “clock square” the night of the grito…the whole place was done up in green, white, and red lights with flags, banners, and a 30-foot firework tower. It was pretty sweet; I wish more of it came through in the photos. Thousands of people were downtown for the event, which lasted past midnight.

This is the firework tower, which had parts that spun and colorful flames that spelled out things like, “Viva México!”

About the president’s visit

The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, did indeed visit our little market town on Tuesday, as well as at least a couple of other towns and villages in our area. The site of his speech was actually not much more than a half mile from our house, so our whole neighborhood was crawling with security and overrun by the 10,000+ people who attended the speech.

One of several newspaper articles on the visit is here.

I attended the speech, along with four other GFM guys. It took us quite a while to get a hold of tickets (they were free, but everyone had to have one), but one of the guys finally found a man selling snowcones who had extra tickets. We got pretty close to the front and had a great view of the speech. Below are a few photos I took. They didn’t turn out great because they were just on my camera phone, but here they are anyway:

Hundreds of people lined up, waiting to get into the speech

One of five helicopters arriving carrying the president and a number of other government officials and security personnel

A large crowd and plenty of members of the media listen to the speeches

On the left is the governor of our state, and on the right is President Calderón

President Calderón at the podium speaking. Seated behind him are his wife, the governor of the state and the governor’s wife, and the president of our town, among others.

The crowd pouring out of the tent where the speech took place

What I liked about the event

  • It was the first time since 17 years ago that a president of Mexico has visited our town, and I think it was an encouragement to the indigenous people, who often feel like the government doesn’t care about them (though I would argue that this perception is not necessarily based in reality).
  • Calderón talked about all kinds of support, programs, and funding the federal government is giving our region, which is one of the poorer areas in Mexico. More importantly, though, he spoke out against the government corruption that has caused so many state and federal funds sent to the region over the years to disappear. In the first year and a half of his presidency, Calderón has taken a stand against government corruption, which has gained him plenty of enemies. Please pray for him and his efforts to combat corruption. Proverbs indicates that the entire country suffers when governors are corrupt.
  • Mexico has a long history of problems in its government, but I have been encouraged the past year and a half by what I’ve seen in President Calderón, the governor of our state, and the new president of our town. It was neat to see all three of them on the same platform, committing themselves to working for the improvement of our region. Concerning our town president, he came into office in January, and it is very evident (unlike with many past town presidents) that he is working hard to make improvements. These past few months are the first time in my four years in Mexico that I’ve ever heard anyone speak well about those in government. When Calderón and the governor come this week and talk about the tens of millions of new pesos they’re putting into highway expansion and improvement, new hospitals, reforestation, and a number of other projects, I am much more inclined to believe them than I might have been in the past. Since January, we already see these things being done.
  • I really like our new local president. One of the things I appreciate about him is his heart for the single women of Tlaxiaco, struggling to support families without the help of a husband. Both in his campaign platform and the two times I have heard him speak, he has had plenty to say about helping single women, which seems to me like one of the region’s greatest needs.

A visit from the president of Mexico

Word on the street in our town is that we’re expecting a visit from the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, as well as from the governor of the state tomorrow. This is significant, because ours is a market town of only about 20,000. It sounds like he’s planning on visiting maybe a few other towns and villages in the area, as well. We had a visit from the governor back in March, and that was a big deal.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to any of the festivities or what, but I’ll get a few photos if I’m able to.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of info on the web, but below are links to a couple of stories. As often seems to be the case, the biggest news is the boycots, protests, and road blockings being planned by people who want to get some issue onto the president’s radar. That’s pretty standard politics around here. Here are the links, in case you’re interested:

Story from May 30
Story from May 31