Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Poverty of el Norte

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see.”
- Revelation 3:15-18 (New Living Translation)

About a week and a half ago I embarked on a great journey along with twelve other members of Victory Fellowship Church in Emporia, Kansas. Our express purpose was to put a concrete second floor on a sister church in Tampochocho, Mexico, about a thirty hour drive south of where we all live. We went to minister and were ministered to.

I’m back home now and I’m spending some time dealing with sensory overload. We who participated witnessed and experienced so much it’s impossible to say what the high points were. Words just fail to express it all.

Was it being able to see a nineteen year old young man named Antonio, who had overcome so many obstacles in life, lead seventeen people to living faith in Jesus Christ as he and I wandered around the city square in Axtla on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Was it seeing a woman who had been tortured by pain and unable to even stand rise by the power of the Spirit and walk, leap, and praise God? Was it seeing the desperate hunger and need filled as Jesus lovingly responded to the desperation and hunger? Was it seeing a little lame girl, Griselda, ask us to pray with her for a pair of shoes so that she could go to school and for a Bible so that she could read all about Jesus? Was it seeing the gratefulness etched on the faces of the Nahuatl (pronounced nah-what) men and women cupping their hands as they received the gift of a small bag of frijoles at the close of the meetings? Was it witnessing the power of the Holy Spirit as it surged in waves through the crowd? Was it seeing these shy, unassuming folks come alive as the wonderful mix of worship and salsa wafted through the night air? Was it in the harmony of men and women from different parts of the world working together to complete what seemed to be the impossible task that had been set before us?

There was so much that we witnessed and experienced. Words fail to express it all.

I’m struck by the powerful temptation to get back into the American routine of wealth and complacency. Why not just let CNN and Fox News and CSI and American Idol and IPODS and Tommy Hilfiger and fast food get us back into the rut of American normalcy? Why not just let Rush Limbaugh or the high powered politicians continue to do our thinking for us? Why not just make Tampochocho another inconvenient speed bump along the road of American wealth and reality? It’s very tempting to clutch desperately to my loyalty to wealth and convenience and forget what I witnessed in Tampochocho.

I’m tempted, but I know I can’t.

As we entered Mexico last Saturday I was particularly struck by the fact that in the midst of poverty there is also staggering wealth. There seems to be very little trickle down in the globalization that's sweeping south from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey. I was also struck by the truth that God always responds to hunger. What raw economics fails to do, Jesus does! He feeds the hungry, the poor, and the broken. He responds to the cries of the afflicted. I saw this with my own eyes. I witnessed it.

As we came back into the United States Friday afternoon a kind of reverse polarity swept over me. My natural eyes saw the enormous wealth, but my spiritual eyes saw the real poverty that rested on the deceit of earthly wealth and riches. The condos and the 5,000 square foot homes of America appeared more like shacks of Mexico in that light. I think it might be a way of seeing things in the proper light, in the light of a kingdom where up is down and the first shall be last.

On the long journey north I saw the sights one normally sees along America’s highways, the Burger Kings and Cracker Barrels, the truck stops, the sit-down restaurants and high-rise office buildings. They’re the familiar symbols of America’s power and wealth. Other less frequent symbols accompanied them. They’re called mega-churches. As we wound down the highway they became more and more frequent, with neon signs and electronic message boards beckoning the “needy.” Their parking lots stretched for what seemed to be miles and their spires extended far into the heavens. They were impressive sights indeed.

A day earlier I’d heard the strains of the old sixties ditty – “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin' on the dashboard of my car.” One after another the mega-churches came into my view and passed just as quickly as they’d come. With each passing I couldn’t help but wonder how many plastic Jesus’s were being sold inside the walls of some of these monuments to man’s faith in himself . Down to our south, in the minimalist view we had of Tampochocho, the Nahuatl were praying for the Holy Ghost to fall on them and praying for a pair of shoes or a Bible to read, and God was responding to the deep need and hunger. On the U.S. side of the border, inside too many of the mega-churches, too many people are praying for expensive trinkets, like the prophets of Baal cutting themselves in a futile attempt to get the fire to rain down from the heavens. Jesus is all too often being peddled as some sort of cosmic errand boy. So, it’s Jesus, satisfier of wandering desires, Jesus dispenser of electronic gadgets, SUV’s, and Cadillac Sevilles, and Jesus enabler of professional goals. In too many others, based on what folks are hearing there, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the real Jesus and the real Bread of Life because He’s being drowned out by the artificial stuff that’s being sold. It’s all too much like the bread you get in the grocery stores these days, full of artificial ingredients. You can take a piece of it and roll it into a little ball of junk. About the only thing it’s good for is for throwing into the water and feeding the carp. There, for one hour on Sunday, you get to hear tales of “the ground of all being” or “considered consequent eschatology,” messages too profound to understand delivered by men in frocked coats. Their booming baritones belie the emptiness of their messages.

By now some of you are probably gnashing your teeth. You’re thinking I’m just a judgmental old fool. “After all,” you say, behold our wealth and power, that’s our proof that everything is just fine here in el Norte. All I can say in response is that I’ve seen what I have seen. America is on the brink of judgment! A spiritual famine is about to descend like the locusts that swarmed over Egypt of old.

America is fast becoming a place where Ichabod is being written over many of its doors. Could it be that we’re fast approaching the place where those with eyes to see and ears to hear are saying, “Stay away from most of the religion of el Norte, it’s dead. Don’t eat the stale bread being offered and whatever you do, don’t drink the water.” Could it be that the time has come for missionaries who have been the beneficiaries of the work of the Spirit in Tampochocho and other poor villages to our south to stream north across the border to give drink to the thirsty and bread to the hungry in the vast American wasteland?

If so, what is our role in all of this?

I see this and I’m becoming convinced that Victory Fellowship and other little beacons of light are being called to be those small pockets of spiritual wealth and generosity in what is becoming a spiritual wasteland, a place where the prayers offered aren’t for the IPOD we just can't live without or the designer outfit to die for, but for the fire of the Spirit to fall and hide our nakedness, a place where our cry is not “Give me!” but “Here am I Lord, send me,” a place where repentance replaces demands for things that cannot soothe the hunger or satisfy the thirst.

That’s what Tampochocho meant to me. I’ve fumbled as best I could for the words to describe that meaning. I realize that they fail. I pray that the Spirit will give them life and meaning, that the fire will continue to burn and that we all will heed God’s call to become the people He desires us to be.


Jim Baxter said...

There is no virtue in poverty.

Mexico has long been a nation abused by its own leadership and its submissive response in the name of relgion and politics. Such ruling coercion carries with it a false definition of human nature and thereby maintains control and an accepted uncreative 'normalcy.'

While our nation is falling into a corruption of values, it has furnished the greatest opportunity for choice the world has ever seen, based as we are on a human nature resulting from acceptance of having been created in the image of our Creator as earth's Choicemaker.

Such opportunity and freedom is today being translated as 'license' with a natural causal-consequence indicating forboding difficulties, failures, and loss.

One of the surest blessings Americans can extend to our neighbors is sharing our more accurate definitions of human nature as made in GOD's image. Failing that, our efforts at fruitfulness will be partial, temporary, limited, and minor.

Americans, in every generation, must obviously relearn it ourselves.

Are we still teachable? The creative process is a choice-making process. Psalm 25:12 kjv

semper fidelis
vincit veritas

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be something if the first shall actually be last and the last shall actually be first? Good meat for thought!

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...


In a sense you're right, but I was looking at things in a reverse order. See Matthew 20:16 or Mark 9:35.