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Reflections

I called this section "reflections" for lack of a better term. Later on it will be filled with a variety of different topical entries.

What is Happening in my Country?November 7, 2008

The Sharing ChurchJune 1, 2008

PovertyNovember 15, 2007

Regionalisms in HondurasSeptember 16, 2007

ImmigrationJuly 9, 2007

The Blessing of GodJune 3, 2007

Disclaimer: Just a warning that this reflection is a bit long, and what's worse, it gets theological.

"God bless you."

It is the standard greeting in evangelical Honduras, exchanged between people who both are part of evangelical churches, and is the most common greeting to someone from the same church. Much of the content of evangelical church services (at least the ones I have seen) revolves around the theme of the blessing of God. It is often a goal of a church service to see God's pouring out his blessings, understood broadly as a spirit of joy with charismatic expression, healing of sickness, spiritual anointing causing liberation from sin, or material blessing.

It is not surprising that those who live with economic scarcity should put a greater trust in the "blessing of God," as they are not as tempted to place their security in themselves or their societal position as Christians of greater economic security. They share with and depend on their neighbors, while looking to God's sustenance. God is the owner of the world, more than a billionaire, they reason, so it should be no problem for him to give his children gifts and protect them from harm.

In church services, speakers tend to also categorize hardships as tests for the believer's faithfulness. "Problems," "obstacles," or "discipline" are part of the Christian life, and believers must remain confident that they are blessed, and believe that God will still do great things in their lives. They must never come to church depressed, but with an emotional high. While "blessing" is a fairly vague term, it is also used to describe specific moments in a service, such as charismatic ministering, an experience I have heard described as a psychological release. The gospel presented by evangelicalism in Honduras has been able to speak powerfully to individuals caught up in addictions, delinquency, or other problems from bad choices, giving rise to a highly emotional spirituality and language of "walking in victory."

I have also seen in Honduras elements of what I would call the "prosperity gospel," a gospel that turns God into a sort of genie with handout miracles. It placates the rich and attracts the poor. It encourages religious legalism or implies inadequate faith of Christians who are not "blessed." I once heard one pastor imply believers won't be blessed unless they make sacrifices for God: "Are you getting up at 5 every morning to pray?" The prosperity gospel is not inherent to Honduran evangelicalism, but I think many Christians in Honduras are susceptible to it. One hears stories like that of a man who prayed for a vehicle and simply found a brand-new truck sitting there, and some angel handed him the keys.

I have also seen a little tract that looks like a credit card. It says, "to finish with divorce, drugs, debts, fears, sickness, use this key to attain what you seek 'in the name of Jesus.' Identify which promise of God will solve your problem-- authority, health, happy family, freedom from vices, riches, power. Order your miracle in the name of Jesus." Alberto Solorzano, president of a group called International Christian Center from Honduras is quoted, "Whenever there is a change in the spiritual life of a human, there is sure going to be a change in the material life of that person."* The director of the project I work for has commented that many churches in poor communities struggle to build an impressive building in order to show that they are blessed.

There is a mega church that I see often on my way downtown, and they say the pastor is very wealthy. I have seen a little of their televised services. The pastor names any manner of medical problem and announces that God is healing these things that very night. He calls up women who cannot have children, promises them healing, and one by one they fall down when he lays hands on them…

It is true that to hear the prosperity gospel from the mouths of the poor almost seems kind of quaint, not repugnant as it does coming out of the mouths of Americans worshipping in their crystal cathedrals. They say God never allows harm to come to his children-- do I disagree? Or if someone of "scarce resources" sets off to look for blessing in the United States, and wants the surety of God's protection, what do you say? "Yes, God loves you, but I can't guarantee his protection against bandits, dishonest coyotes, falling off a freight train, the dessert, or deportation, whatever Psalm 91 may say"?

When I think about a topic like "the blessing of God," it seems pertinent to also think about human suffering. For whoever is "blessed," there is also the ones who suffer hardship or tragedy. For this, I will look at the biblical book of Job, a story of an upright, God-fearing man who was very rich and blessed by God. However, Satan, the accuser, challenges God's boasts about Job and claims Job would curse God if only God would remove his blessing. So God hands Job over to Satan to strip him from everything he has, including his family, and inflict him with the worst illness of ancient times.

Job receives his curse without cursing God. "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)." It is a good question. Most North Americans, myself included, tend to thank God for whatever good thing we experience, but avoid attributing the bad to him. We don't like what that would do to God's character.

The characters of the book all assume Job's suffering is from God, but respond in different ways to it. One of the central issues of the book of Job is God's justice. Was God just in his relationship with Job, by allowing Satan to inflict Job?

Job's friends argue that God was indeed just in his action against Job. Job has sinned in order to deserve his suffering. In this they torment Job, rather than comfort him (16:2). Job maintains that God is sovereign, yet he accuses God of injustice against him (19:6, 13:3, 27: 2). He makes shocking statements about God: "'He destroys both the blameless and the wicked... he mocks the despair of the innocent...When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges.'" (9:23-24). Job laments the fact that his condition is too lowly to be able to challenge God. Otherwise he would like to be able to take God to court: "'If only there was someone to arbitrate between us'" (9:33). Job asks, "'Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands,... Do you have eyes of flesh?'" (10:34).

We cannot easily diffuse the tension of this book by saying, "well, it was Satan, not God who caused Job's suffering." Satan plays a large role, yes, but his primary role is that of the accuser. If we read closely, God takes responsibility for all of Job's suffering: "'And [Job] still maintains his integrity though you [Satan] incited me [God] against him to ruin him without reason'" (2:3).

For me Job raises the question: will I love God unconditionally as he does me? Can I worship him for his greatness, though he destroy me, though he cast me into the lake of fire for my sins? For he has at least given me the gift of existence. What can I demand of God? This is the question that torments Job. Can I approach God as an Other, an unpredictable mystery, one who sees me, but never shows me his face? Maybe, if I know that God is good and am permitted at least to see the face of Jesus.

Finally God speaks and in a long discourse silences Job before his wisdom and authority as creator. Job repents after having maintained his righteousness up to that point. But afterwards, God speaks to Job's friends and grants that Job has spoken rightly of God. What was Job right about? That God is sovereign? That God crushes the innocent while allowing the wicked to live (though they too will die someday)? That God indeed had wronged Job?

God gives abundantly again to Job, more than restoring what he had. This is important, for in this way God vindicates Job, and grants him justice. Certainly Job experiences healing, and likely forgets his earlier anguish, but what about the blood of Job's first children, who were killed? Is there no justice for them?

Perhaps we could distinguish between two senses of the word suffering-- between suffering that is essential to human experience and that which is inessential. Certainly the dark nights of the soul, the pain of love, and the absence of loved ones physically away are part of the rich fabric of what it means to be human, though such things might too be "suffering." But to it is hard to say that lives that are cut off to short, abuse of children, the hunger of the destitute, or violence wrought of hateful hearts is essential. So another crucial question of the book of Job: of which type is Job's suffering?

I find I want to acquit God of responsibility for suffering of the inessential sort. In some cases, such suffering is obviously the result of human sin, while in other cases like the devastation of hurricane Mitch, there is no place to fix blame (unless on God). God has a purpose for each person to live in the world, for only when we live in the world are we given the privilege of being able to love sacrificially, including to those who won't love in return.

I want to say that God doesn't need to intervene in the world in order to work out his plan, but that his purpose is unthreatened by what happens in the world. God intervenes rather (for I do believe in miracles) to reveal himself and offer signs of the kingdom, and this intervention is blessing. I want to say that God redeems all things, even suffering, and in this way human beings may find meaning in their suffering, but I want to say this without saying that God calculates human suffering (or blessing) in order to bring about his reign. I want to say that the only cost to the edifice of the Kingdom was the blood of the Son, and this not because God demanded blood, but because the Son could not in grace approach the tenants--his enemies-- without placing his life and blood in their hands; because the incarnation was impossible without the suffering and death of the Messiah.

The New Testament instructed its first readers not to shrink back from suffering or persecution, but rejoice in the testimony of the gospel in the world. Their God suffered with them and also with his people today. Surely the apostle Paul merited the blessing of larger mansions than those of pastors of any mega church, but his mansion was a prison. His gospel was gratuitous and defenseless (2 Corinthians 11:17).

Let us not be miserable comforters to those with hardships as Job's friends were. Let us avoid building our own security upon our righteousness, which makes it necessary to condemn those with sufferings in order to feel secure that such things could not happen to us. God is a blessing God, but loves even more to bless through the compassion and solidarity of his servants.

Sonia Nazario, in Enrique's Journey tells the story of a Mexican woman named Olga who began with what resources she had to tend the wounds of Central American migrants who had lost limbs being run over by the freight train that was their transportation. Olga began dedicating her life to this work after experiencing healing from prayer to her own chronic illness. The migrants typically wished the train had killed them. "They curse God. Why didn't he protect them? They curse Olga... How will they ever work, much less till a field again?" (page 90-91). Olga insists that they maintain hope, that God has a purpose for which he has given them life.

Indeed, God continues to bless people with life who desperately need it.

*Honduras This WeekMarch 31, 2007, page 1

Questions not all Frequently AskedMay 18, 2007

El MuditoMay, 2007

QuotesFeb 12, 2007

The Mencía familyMarch, 2007

Updated June 22, 2008