Family Letter from Latin America

These are updates I sent to my family and a few friends during my trip that began August 10 and ended September 14, 2006.
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Picture from Argentina
Greetings, family …
It’s my second day in Mexico City and everything has been going very well. I arrived late Thursday night – the only problem being that they lost my luggage. So, after a long wait and filling out a lot of papers, I finally got through customs and was picked up by Rene Padilla (who will be my traveling companion for the next several weeks) and our host here, Saul Cruz. What a tremendous fellow – he leads a ministry called Armonia (harmony – their translation for “shalom”) that does a lot of work among the poor.
It was about a 90 minute drive to his home on the north side of the city. It took a long time because a) there are massive demonstrations (“manifestaciones” in Spanish) going on in the center of the city, with between a half million and a million people camping out to peacefully protest the elections (which were strangely similar to our 2000 elections), b) Mexico City metro area includes 32 million people (can you imagine that?) and a lot of them seem to be in cars at any given moment, and c) there had been massive rains, and the main road into our neighborhood was flooded so we had to take a long detour. But eventually we got to the house and slept well. The weather here is nearly perfect – daytime highs in the 70’s, lows in the high 50’s or low 60’s – which helps explain why a third of the nation’s population chooses to live here.
Yesterday (Friday) we had to drive from the north side of the city to the south side, which took another 90 minutes. By daylight, the city looks a lot like an intensified LA – more people, more crowded, quite a bit messier, much worse traffic, and sprawling even farther in all directions. We spent the day at the Theological Community, an interdenominational seminary. It was a tremendous group of ministry leaders, pastors, professors, and workers among the poor – a lot of very sharp young folks. Rene and I both spoke, and our talks were very well received, with lots of good discussion. Our host, Saul, is one of Rene’s old students, as were several others at the conference – so it’s great to see Rene’s teaching being lived out in such creative ways among the poor here.
We went out to dinner with a group of young church planters and pastors (Guess what? Mexican food! Pretty authentic!) During dinner, we tried to track down my luggage, which they promised would be delivered to Armonia, but wasn’t. We called the airport and after a lot of busy signals, got through. At first they said they had no idea where it was. We called back a couple more times, and then they said they had it. So we decided to go to the airport and get it, which made the drive home (again, in the most incredible traffic I’ve ever seen) about 2 hours or more – just to get across town!
Today Rene and I speak here at Armonia for a group from the north side of the city. “More Ready Than You Realized” is now available in Spanish (Mas Preparado de Lo Que Piensas), and I think the book will be very well received here. Tomorrow I have the day basically free, so I hope to get some writing done and rest a bit. Monday we visit a ministry in a squatter area, and then fly to Guatemala, unless the demonstrations shut down the airport. If that happens, I’m not sure what we’ll do, but it will be interesting. It doesn’t feel dangerous or even tense – the demonstrations are peaceful, and it feels like a grass roots democratic movement – protesting corruption in the current government and expressing concern that the elections were tampered with (at worst) or handled incompetently (at best). Check out Servant Partners from Mexico City.
I miss everybody already. Thanks for your prayers.
Update 2
Greetings, family and friends!
It’s Tuesday and I’m writing from outside Guatemala City, where the weather is perfect. We have well over a hundred pastors gathered here at a seminary, many of them from small rural villages, many of them (I’m told) barely literate – maybe not the ideal audience for talks on postmodern ministry (!), yet there are some good things happening, especially with the younger pastors who “get” everything I’m saying immediately … their heads are nodding enthusiastically and they’re smiling while some of their elders look a bit bewildered.
One lady here has taken me under her wing to help me with my Spanish. She speaks really slowly and really loud, and exaggerates all of her syllables with her eyebrows and mouth, and it’s quite sweet. She’s a kindergarten teacher, and I feel like a kid who sometimes doesn’t know the simplest words. Actually, I’m understanding about 90 percent, and my speaking is getting better too, but the ten percent I don’t understand tends to include the most important words. Like in a restaurant, “Would you like order some ??? with your ??? or would you prefer some ???” The words I know don’t help much with the ones I don’t!
Sunday, after attending a small urban Mennonite church in Mexico City where Rene preached, we drove around the downtown area. We saw the huge encampments of the demonstrators – very peaceful and quite joyful, really. To me, it felt like democracy in action. Then we went to Jalalpa, the slum area on the west side of the city where my hosts, Saul and Pilar Cruz and their daughter Eidi, have been working for 20 years through a ministry called Armonia. What wonderful people! They established a beautiful community center in this slum, on the site of an old garbage dump. It is a beautiful example of what “integral mission” is all about – a health clinic, support for children and mothers, a little church, a counseling center for drug abuse and domestic violence, assistance for the poor, advocacy for the community. Now it’s completely run by local people who are taking real pride in their area … which has gone from a garbage dump with open sewers and muddy roads to a neighborhood that is still desperately poor, but now has paved roads, bus service (so people can get to jobs), shops, basic sanitation, and growing dignity. It was very moving.
On Monday, we went with a beautiful couple, Jean-Luc and Shabrae Krieg (with Servant Partners), to their neighborhood, one of the very worst slums in this huge city. I’ve walked the streets of a lot of poor areas in the last ten years, and this was in many ways among the very worst. Over 500,000 people live in a huge, flat plain (actually a dry salt lake) on the east side of Mexico City. As far as the eye can see, shacks and small houses, muddy, rutted roads, open sewers, massive mud puddles from recent rains, trash, stray dogs, some kids playing in the midst of it all. It’s amazing and powerfully counter-cultural to think that this gifted couple lives in this area by choice, to embody the good news of the kingdom of God there … organizing the community, exploring ways to promote economic development, building relationships, starting small house churches and bible study groups, just being good neighbors in the name of Christ.
Our four-wheel drive truck got hopelessly stuck in a bad patch of mud and filthy water and we wondered if we would get out in time to get to the airport for our flight to Guatemala. Eventually we got a bulldozer working nearby to come and pull it out and from there, everything went well. All in a day’s work in this neighborhood.
In my free moments on flights, etc., I’ve been reading Elias Chacour’s “Blood Brothers.” With all that’s going on in Israel and Lebanon, I’ll just say, BUY AND READ THIS BOOK! It’s well written and inspiring and heart-breaking, and gives a powerful window into what’s going on there, from the viewpoint of a Israeli-Palestinian-Christian-peacemaker. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. It will make you see the world differently.
I miss everybody, but so far I’m sleeping well, staying healthy, and feeling pretty good. I’m meeting wonderful people, and seeing many signs of God at work.
My trip is already one-seventh completed! Thanks for your prayers and I hope everyone is doing great.
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It’s Wednesday night and I’m back in Guatemala City. We were outside the city for two days at one seminary, we’re staying at another one tonight (where I speak tomorrow morning), and we just returned from a third seminary where Rene spoke to a packed house. I decided to skip going out to dinner (it’s after 9 pm) to get to bed early.
Guatemala is the third or fourth poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – after Haiti and Nicaragua and maybe Honduras. It was interesting to hang out with a lot of poor, uneducated, and deeply dedicated rural pastors, many of them Mayan in origin. Now, this afternoon, we’ve been with highly educated seminarians and professors at a very modern university. What contrasts in one day.
We leave for Honduras tomorrow afternoon. I miss everybody. Thanks for emailing when you get a chance – it’s nice to hear from home.
Update 3
Greetings, family!
I’m writing from a pretty little garden in a courtyard at a small hotel in El Salvador. I just returned from visiting the Catholic Church where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in 1980. We also visited the Jesuit residence where six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were shot in 1989. I’m moved, inspired, and also a little shaken up.
Rene Padilla and I left Guatemala City and arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last Thursday. I stayed at the home of Alexis and Lucy, and was treated so well. On Friday, Rene and I taught all day at the Bible Society headquarters – a wonderful group of about 120. These were amazing people – pastors, church planters, and a lot of NGO workers. It was really great to show them the photograph of the “Choluteca River Bridge” that I’ve shown all over the world – we were right near the Choluteca River, and all of them experienced Hurricane Mitch, which I talk about when I use the photo.
On Saturday morning, we spoke to an ecumenical group called The People’s Christian Movement. The gathering was in an Episcopal Church, and these were people who are deeply committed to the gospel and justice. Then we traveled to a very poor neighborhood called Flora del Campo, and spent a few wonderful hours with a church called Amor, Fe, y Vida. My friend Mark Baker worked with this church for many years. If I lived in Tegucigalpa, I’d love to be part of this church. In their poverty, they have grasped the idea of “mision integral” and they’re making a real difference for the kingdom of God. Plus, I heard some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard there.
We left from there to go about 2.5 hours through beautiful Honduran mountains to Seguatepeque, where we were hosted at the Evangelical Hospital by Enrique Martinez and his family. Rene and I each preached at a church the next morning and then led a seminar at the hospital – great interest and discussion. Then we were driven back to Tegucigalpa again – by our tireless driver, translater, and new friend Guillermo Mario. He is a Honduran who just graduated from Houghton College in New York, near where I was born. I enjoyed the ride so much – just staring out at the countryside and mountains, and later at the lightning and rain as a huge thunderstorm came through. (It’s the rainy season here, which means everything is very green.)
I spent Sunday night at the home of Kurt and Joanne Verbeek. They have two fantastic kids and have chosen to live in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city – Nueva Suyapa. 71% of the people live in extreme poverty and the top cause of death is homicide. They live there as “secret agents of the kingdom of God.”
The next morning, Rene and I took a walk through the neighborhood with Carlos – their neighbor who leads an amazing work among the poor. It’s amazing what they have created – schools for the kids, services for families, an amazing microenterprise ministry that has helped hundreds of poor women start businesses, and much more.
We then spoke to a group of Evangelical leaders – Rene gave a fantastic challenge to them – and then visited Association for a More Just Society, which Carlos and the Verbeeks work with. What an amazing ministry – that combines counseling and legal help for the desperately poor with a brilliant website which publishes information about corruption and injustice that the newspapers won’t cover. You may never have thought of journalism as a prophetic work, but in the fifth most corrupt country in the world, it’s very important. (I think the same goes for good journalism in the U.S. – there’s so much truth that isn’t told, and so many lies that are told as truth.)
From there we flew to San Salvador, capitol of El Salvador. It seems to be much better off financially than any of the cities we’ve visited so far, but of course there’s terrible poverty too. Rene’s daughter Ruth surprised us (she now lives in Boston with her husband and their six kids – she’s getting a second master’s degree in theology) at the airport and has been our host. I predict she will someday be a world-renowned theologian like her dad. She was my translator today and is a dynamic and fascinating person, and a tremendous leader. Our lectures today were at the World Vision headquarters – we had a packed house, tremendous discussion, lots of energy about ‘integral mission’ – and the gospel of the kingdom of God.
I’m staying healthy and not too tired. It looks like my camera was stolen from my suitcase, which is a bummer, but I had just downloaded all my pictures the other day, which is good. Not sure what I’ll do for pictures the rest of the trip.
In my free minutes I’m working on the new book. Being here is incredibly inspiring for an author in a writing project like mine, and I couldn’t have a better traveling partner than Rene. Today he was telling me about meeting the great theologian Jurgen Moltmann, and he and Ruth really helped me get a feel for what it meant when Romero and the Jesuit workers (along with some Catholic religious women) were killed by the U.S.-backed government here. Because they stood up for the poor, they were labeled communists and that justified their murder in the mind of the government. I wonder how much the word “terrorist” is being used today in the same way … especially for the Palestinians, but that’s another story.
Sorry this is so long, but now you know everything I’ve been doing. We speak again tomorrow, then fly to Costa Rica. I’ll reach the half-way point in our trip there. I guess I’m at the one-third point today.
I love and miss you all. Thanks for your prayers and notes.
Update 4
Hello, family!
Greetings from wintry Santiago, Chile. It’s cloudy and about 52 degrees. We arrived about 1:30 this morning after flying from Costa Rica to Lima, Peru, and then to Chile. Some people from a seminary here picked us up. Rene and I each have a little dorm room at the seminary, so I feel like I’m back in college. My bed had warm blankets (there’s not much heating here) and I slept pretty well (until 8).
Driving through Santiago early this morning (at about 2 a.m.), I felt I could have been in New York or Boston, London or Paris. It’s the most modern city we’ve visited yet and appears so much more prosperous than Central America. So, as of this morning at least, I feel that I’ve left the third world.
Our time in Costa Rica was really busy, but very good. The owner of a large hotel there had read Secret Message of Jesus, and he gave us very nice rooms, so when we weren’t on duty, we felt we could rest. And Mauricio Soliz, who organized our time there, was a pro – so he worked us hard, but we had good breaks and the whole experience was great.
Last Thursday, after arriving in San Jose, we went to a local TV station and did a one-hour live show. Then, I spoke that night at the National University on Inter-religious Dialogue. For them, that doesn’t mean Christians and Muslims and Buddhists as much as it means Baptists and Pentecostals and Catholics.
On Friday, we led a conference at ESEPA, a thriving seminary, for about 125 people – a packed room. That night, I spoke to a wonderful “emerging church” called Casona (which means Big House). It was about 250 people, I think, maybe more as there were people standing and sitting in the aisles. It was full of young people, plus some older people who have been attracted to what’s going on at Casona – lots of artists, musicians, and other creative people.
On Saturday morning there was another 3 hour seminar for La Red del Camino, and then I had the afternoon off to rest. That night, there was a special dinner for 25 couples at a country club, where I gave a talk and we had a lot of discussion. These are the “emerging leaders” of San Jose – some Christians, some getting interested in following Christ, but not in the traditionally religious way. I met a number of successful businessmen who were inspired by Secret Message of Jesus to contact the president with a plan to create a special fund to help the poor. The president has approved the plan to be sent to their Assembly, which is like Congress.
On Sunday I preached at a church of maybe 700. It reminded me a lot of Cedar Ridge. The music was really good – the band members were professional jazz musicians with a lot of talent and emotion. Then I had the afternoon to rest, and then Rene and I led an open discussion at another seminary. There was a torrential rain during most of our talk, and the tin roof made us feel like we were talking inside a huge drum. But the discussion was excellent.
Yesterday we had another TV show to do – this one live, and then we led a session for the pastor’s fellowship of San Jose – maybe 60 or 80 pastors and leaders. This was a conservative group in many ways, but we were well received.
In Costa Rica, a lot of people begin dinner between 8 and 10 p.m., so every night was quite late, and we had some really good food. We were with mostly middle class people there, which was a big change from the previous countries. But there’s poverty all around, and there, as everywhere in Latin America, people have to have high walls and lots of security systems because of the prevalence of robbery.
A highlight for me was having lunch on Saturday with a young pastor, Roy Soto, who came to a little town near the Poas Volcano. This is a poor town of 1000 people. There are about 14 churches in the surrounding areas, but most of them are very legalistic, etc. So this fellow started a church with the dream of bringing transformation to the community. When they started, the local catholic priest tried to have them shut down, and the local evangelicals opposed him at every turn. But in less than ten years, it has grown to 600 people – and in the process, they have been doing amazing things. He asked the people what the biggest problems in their town were. So he would preach to them that God could use them to change their town. There was a really polluted river going through the town, which they began to clean up. There was a lot of trash in the town itself, so they began a clean-up and beautification project, planting flowers, etc. They developed a program of micro-enterprise to help unemployed women start small businesses, plus a lot of other things that I don’t remember. Rene visited another church in another poor area doing similar things – a home for prostitutes and women drug addicts, schools for poor children, a lot of beautiful things. And we met another fellow who is organizing churches to do something very much like what I describe as the work of “unterror cells” – detonating explosions of kindness and setting off improvised joyful devices. They gather hundreds of church members to converge on a certain poor town somewhere the last weekend of the month, and bring their skills with them – from juggling to entertain children, to doctors and dentists giving free medical help, to cooks bringing food, to musicians doing street concerts, to carpenters fixing homes. For that weekend, the people of these poor towns know that the kingdom of God is alive. When I see these churches, I think, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”
Meanwhile, there are loads of televangelist types across Latin America driving BMW’s, flying in private jets, wearing $1000 suits and Rolexes, preaching prosperity (and getting rich in the process) but ignoring the poor … a very ugly contrast.
Well, I need to speak at the chapel here in about 30 minutes. I need to figure out what I’m going to say!
I love and miss everyone. Today I’m past the half-way point, so let’s see … I’ll be home in 17 days!
Update 5
Hi, family!
Our first day in Chile was a good one. I really like the Chilean people I’ve met. They’re funny, friendly, and energetic, but their accent is pretty tough for me to understand. I began the day by speaking at chapel, and from the first song and prayer, there was a strong sense of God’s presence in the room – sincere people, open hearts, humble minds, thirsty for God. Then I did a couple hours of writing before we had lunch with La Red del Camino – the network of leaders here.
After lunch, five of us skipped the afternoon session to go see an art exhibition by Nicanor Parra, who describes himself as an “antipoet.” The exhibition was unlike anything I’ve ever seen (Jodi, you would have loved it – I kept thinking of you). There were three main areas. In one area, there were about 10 huge screens, some on the walls, some hung in the middle of the room. Each screen had black and white slides showing in rapid succession, timed to some background music. One series contained old drawings and woodcuts from the days of the conquistadors, when so many indigenous people were enslaved and killed. There would be scenes of happy conquistadors feasting and riding horses, and then a single scene showing mounds of dead bodies of indigenous people who had been slaughtered by the conquistadores, then back to more happy conquistadors. The effect was quite powerful. Then it switched to black and white photographs of today’s Chileans, suggesting that their stories are linked to the stories of the past.
The second area was a huge open area containing strange combinations of objects the artist assembled – caskets, piles of old tires, beds – and each would have a little sign on it that would really make you think. In this area, the poet’s poems were painted on the floor and walls too, so as you walked along, you would be reading the floor, then the walls, feeling surrounded by meaning and imagination.
The last area contained a variety of things – one wall of billboards with provocative messages, some of them political, like one that said, “America: Nations Bought and Sold Here.” (This is significant because all Chileans know that the CIA planned the assassination of one of their presidents – Salvador Allende – and helped install in his place a military dictator, Pinochet, who killed thousands of Chileans who were fighting for democracy. I don’t think most Americans know much about this.) Then, one wall was decorated with paper plates of all different sizes, each with a hand-written poem on it. In the middle of the room were various displays – like a Bible, with this sign: “This Book is Not for Sale,” or a crucifix with one arm broken off, and the sign, “No Comment Needed.” The effect of the whole room was to make you think in deep ways. It really was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen – a great example of “postmodern art.”
That night I gave a presentation on Christianity and the global economy, and they invited a local economics professor to respond to my talk. It’s pretty intimidating to have to speak on economics in front of an economics professor! But he spoke very favorably of my talk, and the whole experience was very good. The room was packed and people were standing in two adjacent rooms to listen, even though they couldn’t see.
The next day was an all-day conference at the Baptist seminary. The place was packed and there was lots of great discussion on the topic of evangelism and disciple-making. As soon as we finished, we rushed out to the street to a waiting van which took us to Valparaiso, which is on the coast. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Rene and I spoke that night at an Anglican church to another good crowd. Then our hosts took us out to dinner at a restaurant next to the ocean – about 15 or 20 people in all. These people know how to party – we ate from about 10 p.m. to almost 1 a.m. That night I stayed in a home that had a view of the ocean. The next morning, we watched the fishing boats coming in full of fish.
The following day we toured various ministries of La Roca, a Christian ministry based in the Valparaiso area … their intake center for drug addicts in the city, a community center in a very poor slum area, and a wonderful residential facility out in the countryside. At the community center, they work with young juvenile offenders and also mothers and children. I had an interesting talk with one of the social workers there – she used to live in Silver Spring, MD. Once again, it’s “the big four” that cause so much trouble, and which are so interrelated: unemployment, substance abuse, violence, and AIDs. The key, in many ways, is employment … but it’s a hard road. The center’s offices were two metal shipping containers (like the kind that get loaded on semi trucks and ships), one stacked on the other, with windows cut in the sides, and stairs built to the second level. Quite resourceful, if a bit cramped.
One of the things that has struck me in many of these slum areas is that there are few or no “common areas” – parks where kids can play, for example, or sports facilities. It’s either concrete or dust/mud (depending on whether it’s rainy or not – it’s hard to tell which is worse!). So kids have to go through their childhood hardly ever seeing grass, just playing in the muddy-dusty roads, surrounded by the ever-present slum dogs with their ribs sticking out like picket fences, always looking a little sad and sleepy and lonely as they walk around looking for a scrap of food somewhere.
At the residential facility, we had a tremendous lunch and then the residents introduced themselves. All were in various phases of an 8 month program where they are learning to live in harmony with God, themselves, others, and nature (the integral mission of their program). Then we were treated to some beautiful singing – these tough, strong men sang beautifully, first some worship songs (that sounded so much richer than North American “praise and worship” music) and then some traditional Chilean folk songs. It struck me how many songs all of them knew by heart – something that seems pretty rare in the U.S. It was a real treat.
Then we drove back to Santiago and spoke at a Vineyard church there, to another good crowd with excellent questions. And our hosts treated us to another dinner – this one in a home, with lots of toasts and laughter and good Latino cheer – and another late night. We got up early this morning for our flight to Buenos Aires. In fact, I’m writing these words over the Andes – which are by far the most impressive mountains I’ve seen. I suppose the Himalayas are even more impressive, but since I haven’t seen them (yet), these have my vote for most beautiful and rugged mountains in the world.
I have two weeks left in South America. I’m looking forward to a free afternoon today … rest, some writing, catching up on emails. Then – a full day tomorrow. I love and miss everyone!
Update 6
My two weeks in Argentina have been excellent. The first week was deep winter, and this week has been beautiful spring. Since homes aren’t heated here, I was glad for the change. I never would have guessed last week, with highs in the 40’s and lows in the low 30’s, that this week highs would be in the 70’s and 80’s, and lows in the 50’s. Songbirds (I have no idea what their names are) are singing outside right now.
In Buenos Aires, I stayed at the Kairos Center and was a frequent guest in the home of Steve and Elisa Shannon. I was well taken care of and even treated to some famous Argentinian beef by these good friends. Elisa (another of Rene’s daughters) has been my translator on many occasions, as well as chauffeur, and she has been a complete pleasure to work with. The Shannons chose to live for several years in a desperately poor slum; they are examples (to me) of what followers of Jesus are all about.
My first two days were really full – speaking at a variety of churches and to a variety of groups affiliated with the Latin American Theological Fraternity and La Red del Camino. I finally got to meet Rene’s wife, Cathy, and then said goodbye to them both as they were leaving for Thailand and Europe for another trip of several weeks. It was a real honor and pleasure to travel with Rene, to learn from his teaching, watch his example, and get to ask him lots of questions about theology and his window on church history. (I hope I have Rene’s energy when I’m his age! Actually, I don’t think I have it now, 25 years his junior.)
For the next three days, thankfully, I had a lot of free time. I rested and wrote … and to my surprise, finished the first draft of my new book, Jesus and the Suicide Machine. That means (since I edit, re-edit, and re-re-edit many times over) that I’m about halfway through the writing process, but I’m thrilled with what has developed. I feel very passionate about this book.
From Buenos Aires I went to Villa Maria, a farming town about two hours from the Cordoba airport (Cordoba is one of the larger cities of Argentina). There was a lively group from La Red del Camino there. We had a very good meeting, along with some stimulating conversations over meals – and a chance to experience small-town life in this beautiful and diverse country. It was inspiring to hear stories (and see photos) of how one family from Villa Maria launched an amazing project on behalf of a community of impoverished indigenous people in the far south of the country – the project eventually involved their church and other people from the town. The only bad thing about the quick trip was having to say goodbye to new friends so soon after meeting them.
From there I went to Mendoza for a unique and large youth leaders’ gathering – well over 2000 people present from all over Latin America. This is one of the many beautiful things that Youth Specialties has resourced, with great leadership from Mark Oestreicher, Lucas Leyes, Junior Zapata, and many others. I spoke for a plenary session and managed to do about 1/3 of the talk in Spanish, which I couldn’t have done five weeks ago. Then there was a large workshop, followed by lively discussion sitting in a hallway with a circle of people who wanted to talk more. I left there more convinced than ever that the issues being engaged by the emergent conversation truly are global and truly are needed.
It was strange to realize that I had been featured on the front page of the Washington Post while I was in Mendoza. It was probably better to be out of town!
Anyway, I came back to Buenos Aires on September 11, where I was asked to speak to a group about the U.S.’s response to September 11, 2001. After my presentation, two Latin American theologians responded with very insightful comments, and then there was some very stimulating discussion, followed by a traditional late-night dinner – beginning about 11 p.m.
Yesterday I spoke at two more seminaries to good-sized groups of interesting and engaged students, followed by some significant personal conversations. After a last dinner (beginning about midnight!) with the Shannons, I got two hours of sleep and then was off to the airport early for the trip home, which I’m in the middle of now. It’s one of those two-day, many-legged journeys … with stops in Lima, San Jose, Mexico City (with an overnight stay), Charlotte, and finally Baltimore. It’s hard to believe the five weeks here are coming to an end.
I’ll be so glad to be home, but sad to leave behind many friends … and the chance to develop my Spanish a little more each day. I find myself saying, not “Adios,” but “Hasta la proxima vez,” meaning … “Until next time.” The other night at dinner, in fact, a group of us started dreaming up future chances to bring North and Latin Americans together. That should be good.
Thanks for your prayers, and I’ll see you all very soon!

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Note to Readers

Brian McLaren
April 2006
I sometimes feel that I am the most fortunate person in the world. I have the privilege, first of writing books, and then of getting to travel and meet so many of my readers in person. In addition, so many readers take the time and effort to write or email me with kind and encouraging words. Thank you so much. Even though I can’t respond to all the email and letters I receive, I am sincerely grateful for your encouragement.
Your encouragement is especially meaningful in light of the increasing levels of criticism I have received over the last year, much of it unfair and inaccurate, much of it, no doubt, richly deserved. It is in regard to criticism that I would like to make several requests of my supportive readers. When people become contentious, we have a special responsibility to be peacemakers. If you consider these requests, you will be helping me and I will be deeply and personally grateful.
1. Please do not cause dissension, division, or trouble on my account (or any other account!). If others say or write unfair or inaccurate things about me or my writings, please do not respond in kind. You may wish to offer some words of personal testimony by telling people how God has in some way helped you through my work, or you may want to offer your personal observation if you have met me in person, but please, please do not respond with harshness, counterattack, or defensiveness. If you read a harsh or unfair review, instead of getting upset with the content or tone of the review, simply set a better example by writing a constructive review. If someone writes something that insults you, let them know how you feel – not in an accusatory way, but in a vulnerable way: “I felt insulted and misunderstood when I read your blog post.” Paul said, “Don’t let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil,” and he also said that in matters of dispute, we should keep our opinions to ourselves (Romans 14). These provide parameters, I think, for knowing how to respond. In all cases, please remember the Proverb that says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”
2. Please do not make me or even my books the issue. Make Christ and his teachings the issue, and make a right understanding of the Scriptures the issue. If you want to bring up an idea that you read in my book, instead of saying, “McLaren says,” or “The Secret Message of Jesus” says, or whatever, point to Jesus’ own words, or other relevant words from Scripture. I haven’t seen many examples of “dueling Bible verses” producing good results, especially on blog sites, but sometimes a non-combative and gentle appeal to a Scripture can help some people see things in a new light.
3. If you have become convinced of something from one of my books, and you hear a preacher or friend say the opposite, if at all possible, just let it slide. Instead, try to hear what they’re saying in a charitable light and learn whatever you can from it. Affirm whatever you can and don’t argue about the rest. The proverb says it’s a person’s glory to overlook an offense, and Paul calls us to be longsuffering and patient, often reminding us not to be quarrelsome or contentious in any way, but to be kind to all, patient when wronged, and gentle with everyone.
4. Please don’t recommend my books to people who aren’t ready for them. I wouldn’t have been able to handle some ideas in my books twenty years ago, so I am sympathetic to people who can’t handle them now. The book that means the most to you may be a distraction to one of your friends, so please be careful and prayerful in this regard. Timing is, as they say, everything. If Paul’s inspired writings were considered by Peter to be hard to understand easy to distort, then no doubt my scribbles and ramblings will be confusing and problematic for some people. I’d recommend my new book, The Secret Message of Jesus, along with More Ready Than You Realize and Finding Faith, as the most accessible of my books, but even they would be unprofitable for some people. All Scripture is profitable, but not everything else is universally profitable!
5. If you have become convinced of some things from my books which put you at odds with your church or organization, please do not undermine the leadership there. Please! People often ask my advice in these situations. I don’t think there is a universal prescription (except love your neighbors!), but when I was a senior pastor, here’s what I wish people would have done if they had differences with my leadership or teaching: First, I wish they would have come to me (or written to me) in private and in a friendly and nonthreatening way told me what they have come to see or believe (not what they think I should see or believe!). Then I wish they would have asked me for my advice on what they should do. Would I like the opportunity to present them with counter-arguments? Would I prefer that they leave and find another church? Would I prefer that they stay and share their ideas, gently and patiently of course, with others? Would I prefer that they form a small group to dialogue about these matters? Or maybe I think that they’re on the right track, but this congregation isn’t ready for their ideas, so perhaps they should consider finding or forming a new faith community? Third, I would have appreciated a promise that they wouldn’t cause dissension in the congregation, but would instead pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification.
If it turns out that you should leave, please write a letter of thanks to the church leaders – without even a hint of criticism – and leave them with a blessing, so that whenever you see one another in the future, they’ll have a good feeling about you and gratitude for your mature spirit. I think it is a good gesture to give a generous financial gift as part of your goodbye. If you have duties at the church, don’t leave without finding and training a replacement. Above all, don’t even get close to a church split or anything like it. It’s better to quietly withdraw than disturb the peace of a faith community in any way. Again echoing the apostle Paul, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone, and be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
6. If you are a pastor or other leader yourself, please do not impose on your congregation or organization ideas you have become convinced of through my books. Change is a process that requires wise and patient leadership. To rush new ideas into a sermon is often the very worst way to bring about change – apart from a change of address and employment, that is! If your congregation is open to new ideas and seeks a transformation in its identity to a more missional and emergent vocation, I would highly recommend you begin by finding an experienced consultant that you trust to guide you in this process. (I can highly recommend my colleagues at ILSCC.net, and there are many other good consultants whom I personally know and respect.)
7. If you are mistreated simply because you agree with ideas in my books, then by all means seek out some friends who will understand. You’ll need some people with whom you can be open and honest so that you can process the pain and grief of mistreatment. You may need to seek a professional counselor or spiritual director’s help. Whatever you do, don’t let the mistreatment of others destroy your faith or make you lose heart. Doing so will in the end empower the people who have behaved badly. Instead, let their mistreatment drive you deeper into God’s compassionate care. Elsewhere on this site, you will find a prayer that has helped me so much when I experience mistreatment. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me. For several months, I prayed this prayer day after day, and parts of it I now know by heart. It has helped me to see people who have hurt me not as enemies but as “cruel friends” for whom I can sincerely thank God.
8. An idea: if you’re excited about something you’ve gained from my work, instead of turning it into discussion, first turn it into action and invite others to get involved with the action. For example, get some people together to do something for people in need in your community, or clean up a stream or park, or organize around a justice issue you care about, or address some down-to-earth problem for your church (paint a classroom or remodel a bathroom or build a playground), throw some big parties for friends who aren’t connected to God. In the end, action is what counts, not words. If people use my books to stir up arguments, it’s a guarantee they haven’t understood what I’m writing about; if they get involved in compassionate action, it’s a good sign they get it.
9. If you see people who have been helped by my books doing the opposite of one of these requests, please encourage them to read or re-read this letter. It might even be good, if you have a study group who reads one of my books, to go over these requests at the beginning or end of your study. And if you have done the opposite of one of these requests, by all means, humbly and sincerely apologize to those you hurt or offended.
It has been my policy to avoid defending myself. Occasionally I have offered some clarification, and I am in the process of writing a friendly note to my critics, asking for their cooperation in raising the quality of dialogue in our Christian communities. But I do not want to become defensive, nor do I want to get anywhere close to counter-attack, aggressively or passive-aggressively. If I do that, I have violated the message I’m trying to live and communicate.
On a positive note, the amount of criticism I receive regarding my books is small compared to the warm and moving accounts I hear of people being blessed by God through them. The criticism has been less severe than I feared, and the positive response has been far more wonderful than I had hoped. Over time, perhaps those positive effects will become more visible and will soften the hearts of the critics to some degree.
Again, I thank you for reading my books and considering these requests. And I thank God for the privilege of in some way serving you, even indirectly, through writing. May God’s kingdom come, and may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven through all we do.

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A Friendly Note to My Critics

By Brian McLaren
Summer 2006
You would think after 24 years of serving as a pastor I would get used to it. You would think I would get a thick skin so that criticism wouldn’t bother me. But I confess that I am disheartened by some forms of criticism. Obviously, I am aware of the fact that some of my ideas are controversial. I believe that all controversial ideas need plenty of scrutiny – as do many non-controversial ones. I do not in any way think I am above scrutiny, and I have been wrong enough times in my life to be sure that I will need ongoing correction for the rest of my life.
I struggle more whenever a new book comes out. Books are like kids, and the release of a new book is like sending your child off to school for the first time. You don’t want her to get made fun of for her thick glasses and braces. You know she’s a little clumsy and overweight, but you don’t want her to be chosen last for the team or called mean names. You don’t want her to get pushed around on the playground by the local bullies. You see her potential, and you hope that others will, and it hurts when they judge her by her looks, or when they make her the focus of their faultfinding mission. Of course she’s not perfect, but you know she has value and you hate to see her treated badly.
Thankfully, some criticism comes in a truly constructive way – it helps me, informs me, and helps me be a better person, writer, and Christian. In my most recent book, for example, The Secret Message of Jesus, a few readers pointed out a few small factual errors in the text. Thankfully, those mistakes were not substantial, and they will be corrected in future editions.
So it’s not the helpful pointing out of factual errors that disheartens me; it’s the unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited responses – especially when they are done in the name of God. I imagine that some fair-minded people who deeply disagree with my books also wince at the way less fair-minded people critique me or my work.
When people who claim to love the Bible launch unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited attacks, especially when they do so on a public and international forum like the internet, they are not only hurting me and sometimes my readers (which they may not care about) – they may also be hurting the cause of Christ (which they do care about). After all, the Bible clearly says we must not bear false witness, spread rumors, or indulge in uncharitable or unwholesome speech. It says we should do to others as they do to us and act justly. It asserts that our love for one another reflects on the credibility of our message. It tells us we should examine ourselves and look at obstructions our own eyes (which would include flaws in our own viewpoint or perspective) before we try to perform eye surgery on someone else. This kind of behavior among people who claim to love the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, orthodoxy, and truth brings dishonor on these very things.
So, in a fraternal and hopeful spirit, I would like to make several requests of my critics.
1. Accuracy: I repeatedly read people claiming, “McLaren says…” or “McLaren believes…” when I have either never said what they claim or explicitly denied it. Or they make exaggerated statements like, “McLaren doesn’t believe anything,” or “He questions everything.” Even though you think I’m wrong, may I ask you to accurately represent me, and not push what I say to an absurd extreme that any sane person would reject?
2. Fairness: Sometimes people accurately quote one sentence, or part of one sentence that I have written, and then use it to claim I am being imbalanced or dualistic or reductionistic, and so on. I often go back and check the sentences or phrases they quote, and then I notice that in the very next sentence or paragraph, I qualify or balance or add nuance to what they have quoted. If you are on a fault-finding mission, you will quote the first sentence and ignore the second, but if you are pursuing fairness – as an expression of your own integrity and good character, can I ask you to seek to be more fair?
As well, may I politely ask you in the interest of fairness to avoid guilt-by-association? This works two ways. First, I read and quote a wide variety of people. More than that, I try to build friendships with people with whom I disagree. With increasing frequency, I find that people are attacking me because I keep company with certain people (and even speak with them) or I quote someone who we would both agree is wrong on many counts. Since Jesus was a friend of sinners, and since Paul quoted “pagan” poets on more than one occasion, can I ask you to refrain from using guilt by association in your critique? Second, I find critics attacking other people merely for keeping company with me or listening to me. Be assured, people often are kind enough to speak with me or quote me on occasion even though they disagree with me on other points. I hope you won’t criticize them for doing so. Perhaps they’ll have a good influence on me!
3. Judgmentalism: There is a difference between truthfully reporting a statement and uncharitably inferring a motive. So when people say, “McLaren shows contempt for the Bible,” or “McLaren is a coward because he didn’t answer my question directly,” or “McLaren thinks he is better than everyone else,” that seems less like an act of reporting or analysis and more like violating Jesus’ command not to judge. In Paul’s famous love passage, he says that “love believes all things,” which seems to mean that love believes the best – it tries to interpret other people’s behavior not cynically, but charitably, graciously giving the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, Jesus sums up the law and prophets by teaching us to treat others as we would be treated. Unless you would like others to jump to conclusions about your motives and assume the worst about you, may I ask you to fairly and accurately engage with my ideas, but try to avoid making judgments about things you simply do not know – my heart, my motives, my intentions?
4. Rumors: It is quite distressing to see inaccurate or unfair or judgmental things said about my writings or my own character. But it is even worse when these rumors are passed around as facts. Recently, I’ve read a number of reviews by people who admit they have never read my books, but are working from hearsay. Please don’t spread rumors, and please don’t believe unsubstantiated claims.
5. Lack of Self-examination: Those who attack my ideas often do so in a way that shows they haven’t really examined themselves. For example, someone recently criticized some of my writings in ways opposite to what I’m requesting here. Then he quoted a Bible verse to refute what he claimed to be my position. (Sadly, he had misinterpreted my actual position, so he was attacking a straw man.) Interestingly, the Bible verse he referred to actually contradicts the position he claimed to hold. Even if I am wrong in my view, this kind of unreflective reaction is a bad reflection on the Christian faith. So please, if you use a Bible verse to try to refute me, first see if it actually supports your own position.
6. Name-calling. Words and phrases like “liberal,” “heretic,” “of the devil,” “Satanic,” “fundamentalist,” and so on are very effective in discrediting someone, but they are also rather childish and unhelpful and divisive. Those of us who are parents don’t like our children calling each other names in this way, and I am quite certain God has similar feelings when we resort to name-calling.
7. Harshness: In 2 Timothy 2, Paul advises his younger associate to use gentleness when he seeks to correct people in error. I’ve noticed that whenever I am harsh with people, I am less likely to gain a hearing for my message. In fact, some of your frustration with me may come exactly from times when I have been harsh, which I sincerely regret. If you are hoping to correct me or people who feel they have been helped my books, may I ask that you do so with gentleness? That way, if you’re completely right in your correction, you’ll increase the chances that we’ll listen. You’ll allow us to respond to the truth of your corrections rather than drive us away with the spirit in which you express them. And if you are not completely right, you will have made it easy for there to be constructive dialogue so that we can all grow through our interchange – instead of filling the body of Christ with the toxins of attack, defense, counterattack, and so on.
8. Disharmony: I’ve noticed that intelligent people often use a “but” when they could more profitably use an “and.” For example, I might make a statement that is true and accurate and needed as far as it goes. But obviously, that one statement still doesn’t say everything that needs to be said. So, someone else can wisely and helpfully add the word “and,” and build on what I’ve said, contributing balance, depth, nuance, and so on. This is how good conversation progresses. But if she instead implies I am stupid or wrong or dishonest for not saying both what I said and what she wishes to add, that strikes me as unhelpful. She has a chance to work in teamwork with me for the common good, but instead she chooses to set us up as enemies. I love Paul’s words in this regard in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Therefore, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding,” or his words in Ephesians 4: “Be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In that light, I want to say again that wherever I have been harsh in any of my writings, whenever I have come across to you as divisive and disrespectful, I am truly sorry. These eight requests are communication practices to which I aspire, but sadly, I fail to practice them at times. So of course I will endeavor to be gracious to those who fail to meet these ideals, since I stand in need of grace myself. I have made it my policy to avoid name-calling or even naming individuals in a negative light. I have tried to present my ideas with humility so that others do not feel shamed or insulted in any way. But I am sure that I have failed on more occasions than I realize. I have many regrets in my life, many of which relate to the way of I have critiqued others. Looking back, I have never been proud of even one time when I have been harsh, sarcastic, or disrespectful in my words or attitudes to other human beings.
So I want to assure you, if you find yourself among those who deeply disagree with me, that I mean you no harm. I repeatedly tell people, if they are happy and confident in your approach, that they stay with it and ignore me, my work, and my friends entirely. I am not here to steal any of your “market share” or do you harm in any way. Instead, I’m here for all the people who can’t survive following your way of thinking and your way of doing things. These people, many of them, are about to leave the church and the Christian faith entirely. Many have already left in disillusionment. Many are seekers with lots of issues, the kinds of people for whom your churches aren’t ready, nor are they ready for you. You may consider them apostates or pagans or whatever, but these are the people I feel some calling to help – so they can be connected to Christ and his mission even though they can’t function in the religious settings over which you preside or in which you are yourselves sincerely satisfied and blessed. I am not your enemy. I see myself as your colleague, just as Paul, who consented to work with Gentiles at the margins, was the colleague of the apostles in Jerusalem, who continued to focus on serving the Jewish community.
Paul wisely said in Galatians 5 that we must be careful. If we bite and devour one another, we will consume one another. Jesus similarly said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Yes, there is a place for mature and direct debate, but a person’s attempt to correct another’s errors can in some cases create more trouble than the original person’s errors. I hope we who disagree on some matters can agree to work together to avoid that sort of vicious cycle.
Whenever I am shown to be wrong, I pray that my love for God and God’s truth will lead me to side joyfully with my critics against my own writings. But until I am convinced that I am wrong, all I can do is seek to tell the truth as I see it, and raise questions that I believe must be raised, with appropriate humility and openness to correction, while pleading with those who disagree to do so in ways that will not harm the communities and values we all cherish.
Whether or not you agree with these requests, be assured that I am committed to prayerful self-examination in light of all critique, and I seek to learn from all attempts to help or instruct me, even if those attempts come out in a less-than-ideal way. When critiques are obviously unfair or intentionally malicious, I hope I can receive them as opportunities to grow in my Christian character and follow the example of Christ, whose gracious response to mistreatment is one of the ways he fully and perfectly revealed the gracious character of God.
So in summary, I hope that if you are among my good Christian critics, you will aspire to be a good Christian in the way you respond to my writings, even if you think I am a bad Christian for what I write or the questions I raise. We have a chance to model constructive dialogue rather than the religious bickering which has too often characterized all our religious communities. Even if I am as wrong you think I am, what good would it be to prove a wrong person wrong if in the process right people prove themselves mean-spirited, unfair, unreflective, inaccurate, dishonest, or hypocritical?
One final request. I hope that none of us will spend so much time in internal debate about our beliefs that we neglect putting our beliefs into action. It would be tragic for both you and me if our differences distracted us and others from what religion is supposed to be about: helping widows and orphans and others in need, and keeping ourselves “unspotted from the world,” as James says.
There is much more that could be said, but I fear this is already far too long. Please feel free to link to this note or pass it on to people for whom you believe it would be helpful.

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Fall/Winter 2006 Update

Greetings, friends!
Thanks for your interest in my work. I hope that you have found some encouragement and help in my books, and I hope this website will also be of value to you.
I had an unforgettable summer - I spent 5 weeks travelling Latin America, teaching and dialoguing in seven countries, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. For most of the trip, I travelled with Dr. Rene Padilla, a theologian and leader from whom I have learned so much. I met so many wonderful people - you can read a rather lengthy report here. (Also see Orientacion Cristiana.)
I've been in 20 different countries this year, and everywhere I've gone, I've heard leaders lamenting the fact that the church in the USA doesn't seem to listen to their sisters and brothers in the rest of the world. I invited a number of friends to send me short messages that they'd like the Christian community in the US to hear, and I'll be posting their messages here soon.
You'll also find some big news about my plans for 2008. You might want to be involved!
This fall, I'll be in Kansas, Minnesota, Indiana, New Brunswick, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Washington State, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Florida, Arkansas, and Illinois ... maybe we'll get to meet in person in one of these places. (See the schedule for details.) It's clear that I won't be bored!
Meanwhile, I'll be finishing up "Jesus and the Suicide Machine" between now and the end of the yar. I finished the first draft while in Argentina ... I'm so excited about this book. Be prepared for something quite different from anything I've written before.
I've been getting some wonderful reports of people using "The Secret Message of Jesus" for sermon series, small groups, classes, and even retreats. Just as I'd hoped, the book connects with people who are "spiritual but not religious," skeptics, and otherwise unconnected from Christian commitment - along with committed Christians too. The book has had a stronger start than any of my previous books.
Other news - I begin my term as board chair for Sojourners (sojo.net) this fall. I've also been working closely with Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Adam Taylor, Diana Butler Bass, Amy Sullivan, and others in a new venture called "Red-Letter Christians." Many of us have been trying to find ways to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. I hope you'll do what you can to help as well.
And as always, I'm thrilled to see what's happening with emergentvillage.com. Good things are happening!
I thank God for the privilege of serving you in some small way. Thanks for your encouragement and interest. Let's keep on ... plotting goodness!
Brian

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Favorite Books from 2005

Some Great Reads from 2005
I can't believe how many tremendous books are being published. Add to
them the great books from the past that I've only recently discovered,
and sometimes I hope I can live to be 125 just so I won't miss too
much. But even then, I would still miss so much, because there are
more excellent books waiting for us than one person could ever digest.
So - here are ten top recommendations from my little corner of the world.
First, I read several books on faith and social justice this year.
Among them, four stood out.
1. Jim Wallis, God's Politics.
2. Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values
3. Rabbi Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God (to be released in 06)
All three of these books seek to begin a dialogue after many years of
monologue by the Religious Right. I found each of them alarming and
inspiring at the same time.
4. C. K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. While
this book is not religious, it makes one point very well - and I think
it maps out a plan for helping the poor that could bring together
caring Christians from the left and right.
I always try to keep some good fiction and poetry on my reading list.
Of special pleasure this year were two books:
5. Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack. Tender, humane, insightful,
heart-breaking, and beautiful ... I feel like a better human being
after I read Berry's work.
6. Garrison Keillor, ed., Good Poems. Put this one beside your bed
and read a few each night. You'll feel afresh what an amazing thing
language is.
Three works of theology were most stimulating to me this year. Both
of them came to me in manuscript form in 2005; they'll be released in
2006.
7. Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man. This book is the
best introduction I'm aware of to a fresh perspective on eschatology.
Many of us know that we desperately need an alternative to the "left
behind" eschatology that is so popular (and unhelpful) these days.
Here it is. Andrew takes some ideas that N. T. Wright has been
proposing for several years, ideas that Tim King's
"transmillennialism" also engages (but not yet in a popular book), and
grapples with them in Paul as well as Jesus.
8. Pete Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God. I expect that some of my
friends will not like this book, but I loved it. As an old English
major whose studies took him into the epistemological deep end of the
postmodern pool, I find in Pete Rollins someone who has learned to
swim without being able to touch bottom.
9. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be. This book helped me a great deal
in my work on The Secret Message of Jesus. It takes ideas from
several of Wink's books and makes them easily - and provocatively -
accessible.
On the Bible, I especially enjoyed ...
10. Judith Kunst, The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish
Midrash
. This manusript (to be released in 06) brought together most
or all of what I've learned about helping people approach the Bible,
and much more. A special bonus - Kunst writes beautiful prose, and
she also includes some of her poetry in this book. I hope we'll see
much more from her in the years to come.

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