Merry-ChristmasSpecial note: If you’re reading this and you’re Dutch or Antillean, I apologize for any errors or misunderstandings. Feel free to use the comments to make additions or corrections.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Christmas in the Dutch Caribbean is somewhat different from Christmas in the United States. In the States, for example, we have Santa Claus, who is something of an Americanized version of the Dutch Sinterklaas, both of whom are fableized and secularized versions of Saint Nicholas.

Sinterklaas doesn’t arrive in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve by reindeer-drawn sleigh. Instead he comes by steamboat from Spain (that’s where he lives–not the North Pole) in the middle of November, and so kicks off the holiday season. Of course, we have Thanksgiving and Black Friday for that in the U.S.

Sinterklaas does bring gifts for children, who place their shoes, not stockings, by the fireplace as receptacles. Sinterklaas also keeps track of which kids are which, naughty-and-nice-wise–has the list with him when he gets off the steamboat. And Sinterklaas has helpers, but they’re not elves, and as near as I can tell, they’re not involved in the manufacture of toys. Sinterklaas’s helpers are called Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten in Dutch).

According to legend, the original Black Pete was a Moorish slave whose freedom was purchased by Saint Nicholas, for which Pete was so grateful that he stayed on to help the Saint. Over the years, for reasons that are not clear to me, Black Petes have multiplied, so that today Sinterklaas arrives with a whole crew of Petes (here’s some video of his arrival here in Bonaire). In the not-so-old days, Pete comes along with St. Nick to punish the bad children (in the harsher versions, he might even put them in his toy sack and carry them back to Spain!). These days, he’s more likely to just toss candy around. And these days, he might be black because he’s going up and down chimneys all the time and not because he’s actually black. Of course, here in Bonaire–and nowadays in the Netherlands where wood-burning fireplaces are getting banned–this chimney story is often hard to pass off.

One thing Santa and Sinterklaas definitely have in common is that they bear almost no resemblance to the actual Saint Nicholas, who was, after all, a real person and not a fictional magical character. He was a bishop in the early church and actually one of the signatories to the first Nicene Creed–usually regarded as the defining statement of the irreducible minimum of orthodox Christianity. He was known for secret deeds of charity, and one example is that he may have put coins in the shoes of people who left them out for that very purpose (I just pause here to note that it’s not really possible to be known for secret deeds).

The thing to notice about the actual Nicholas of Myra is that being a party to the Nicene Creed gets to the heart of the reality that Christmas is actually supposed to celebrate–the reality of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in the person of Jesus. A man named Arius was teaching that the Son of God was a created being, not the second person of the eternal Trinity, and it was the Council of Nicaea that formally rejected that idea as heresy and established the twin doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation (that Jesus is fully God and fully human) as essential to the true gospel. In this way, it seems appropriate to me to associate Saint Nicholas with Christmas, even if his modern fictionalized versions don’t make the connection.

In Other News…

Our own Christmas celebration at IBC will include a Christmas Eve concert, which I am told is a popular event here in Bonaire. We’re bringing in extra chairs for it. Please pray that it will be an occasion for a clear presentation of the gospel. Also, for preaching during the advent season, I have adapted and expanded the little article I wrote for CBC’s Christmas Concert last year into a series titled “Christmas Changes Everything.” You can listen to these sermons on the IBC audio page.

On December 8, we had a special service to formally install me as the Pastor here at IBC. Byron and Jared were here from Nashville, and Byron gave an encouraging message about various ways the congregation here could support their new pastor. Jon and Charlene Kever also came down from Michigan, and Jon gave a short testimony about how God has used our friendship in his life over the years. After the service, we had a fantastic cookout “dinner on the grounds” sort of thing. One lady said, “It was church at its best,” and I tend to agree. What an encouraging warm welcome I have received. Here are a few photos from the day.CongregationPanoJohn_5657Byron_5658IMG_9859Sigfried_5665

.

I also want to say a giant Thank You to Larry Stack, who sent a gift along with Byron…DSCF7708Web

After I picked myself up off the floor, I read the card Larry sent along with the camera, which placed a condition on the gift, “that you include underwater photographs in your posts.” That’s right, it’s an underwater camera! So here you go, Larry–a few of my first underwater shots (the first one is just in the water, not under). I hope these will stimulate your scuba nerve.

DSC_0079

DSC_0077

DSC_0118
Last but not least, here’s a link to a photo album of Jon & Charlene’s visit.

Advertisements

DSCF7639bHere in Bonaire, it’s hard to remember that it’s Thanksgiving Day. First of all, it’s 86 degrees outside, so you go inside to cool off, not to warm up. There’s no aroma of firewood smoke and fall foliage. And, of course, here in Bonaire, there’s no holiday. The one reminder is the sudden appearance of Christmas decorations all over town and here in the church. Of course, the biggest difference is that I’m not enjoying the day and the feast with the family, though I have to say that the weather/travel situation that’s going on in the States makes me thankful to be where I am. Captain Don hosts a Thanksgiving dinner at his Rum Runners Restaurant for us ex-pat Americans. I’ll let you know, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to measure up to Mom’s.

The word “thanksgiving” in the Bible is a translation of the Greek word eucharistia, which is formed from the word charis meaning gift or grace. To be thankful is to be full of grace and to express that fulness to the gift-giver. How appropriate that one of the primary names of the communion service is the Eucharist–the thanksgiving. It strikes me that all there is to the Christian life is the grateful enjoyment of God’s grace toward us in Christ.

But there’s more to it than simply saying the words “Thank you.” Imagine if you bought your kid a bicycle for Christmas, and he said, “Thanks for the bicycle,” but never rode the bicycle. You might wonder about the sincerity of his thankfulness. If you saw him screaming around the neighborhood on his new bike on a daily basis, that’s when you’d really feel thanked. If we say thank you to God, but don’t actively enjoy his gifts, they are unridden bicycles and our thanksgiving is simple hypocrisy. As John Piper always says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

Another thing I’ve noticed lately is how gratitude is getting depersonalized. To many, it is an attitude that one has entirely within oneself–more about what I’m thankful for than about who I’m thankful to. It’s about simply being glad to have something. Thanksgiving is really nothing more than stop-and-smell-the-roses Day. I don’t know, do we really need a national holiday to remember to be happy about the good stuff we’ve gotten recently? We need to remind ourselves that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” We don’t just get blessings, God gives them. And of course, the best and most perfect gift of all is the Son of God himself, our Lord and Savior, Friend and Intercessor, Jesus Christ. This thanksgiving, don’t just be thankful, thank someone.

Let me start with the prayer list:

1. Pray that my visa will be approved as soon as possible. It has taken a bit longer than we originally anticipated, and there are things we need to do that can’t be done until I am a resident of Bonaire–things like getting a driver’s license and opening a bank account.

2. Pray for healing for Eppie, who has done much of the construction work at IBC. He was seriously injured in a traffic accident, suffering a broken leg and a broken arm. Because he developed breathing complications after surgery on his leg, he was transported to intensive care in Aruba. He has recovered somewhat, and is now out of intensive care and awaiting surgery on his arm. Please also continue to pray that the Lord will use these events to draw Eppie to himself.

3. Two special services will be held in December. First a service formally installing me as the Pastor at IBC will happen on Dec. 8. A small group from CBC in Nashville will be here, and Byron will speak. Jon and Charlene Kever are also coming, and Jon will say a few words in the service, too. The service has been announced in the local press, so there may be a number of visitors (even some VIPs) and an opportunity to share Christ with people we don’t see on a regular basis. The second special occasion is IBC’s annual Christmas Choir Concert on Christmas Eve. The concert is popular on the island and draws a much bigger than average crowd, so it also gives us a chance to proclaim God’s grace in Christ to many who don’t know Him.

4. Please continue to pray for our ministry to children on Sunday morning as we work out how to serve kids in three different languages.

5. Pray for our elders (Kees-Jan DeKruijf, Tom Francees, Bob Lassiter, Dave Pederson, and Brad Swanson). We are working on defining our mission as a church and how that mission can be realized in all that we do.

6. Pray for my preaching and teaching ministries. In November, the theme is the Christian family and marriage. In December, I will give a series of messages on the significance of the incarnation, and in January I will begin an exposition of the book of Philippians. I am also currently leading our Bible study on Tuesday nights, in which we just started to look at 2 Timothy.

In other news…

Governor Emerencia

As I settle in to life in Bonaire, I’m very encouraged by the welcome I’ve received. I was immediately invited to participate in a monthly meeting of pastors with the Governor of Bonaire, Lydia Emerencia. This meeting is organized by Herbert Domacasse, who previously served as Governor, and is a solid believer. Both of these important citizens have extended a very warm welcome to me.

I also recently met the famous Captain Don Stewart, who is the man who pretty much started the dive industry in Bonaire, and something of a local celebrity. When I mentioned meeting Captain Don to Jon Kever, he made the very perceptive observation that Captain Don is a walking Jimmy Buffet song.

.

These are all people to pray for, by the way. I met Captain Don in the hospital, where they’re working on bringing him some relief for his problem of congestive heart failure which is currently complicated with pneumonia (he’s 89 years old, from what I’m told). While the Captain is a self-professed unbeliever, he was also enthusiastic in welcoming me to the island. I’m hoping he’ll be able to come to the installation service.

.

Cruise season has begun on Bonaire, so between now and next April, about two or three times a week, one of these is the tallest man-made structure on Bonaire.

DSCF7613.

The third ship of the season was this clipper, the Star Flyer.

DSCF7616
.

In this shot, you can see what I mean by the tallest man-made structure. That’s the Holland America ship Noordam in the red circle, and this picture was taken from the church, nearly a mile and a half away. DSCF7623b
.

The big news of this last week was the visit of the King and Queen of the Netherlands to Bonaire last Saturday, during their tour of all of the Dutch Islands. The photo here was taken (not by me) at Mangazina di Rei culture center, where one of their guides, Gideon Plantijn, presented the king with some local food. I happen to know Gideon from the tour guide class.

One last thing: we’ve made some changes to the IBC website, one of which is that sermon audio is now available. Each week’s message is usually available on Tuesday morning.

Here in the tropics, it’s hard to remember that we’re coming up on Thanksgiving, but I must say I’m thankful to be living in a place where my main shoes are flip-flops.

DSCF7409b

Prayer items are highlighted like this. It’s been just over a month since I came to Bonaire, and I think I’m starting to get settled. Everything I shipped from Nashville arrived, though not all in one piece, but no serious damage. The books remained in their boxes while bookcases were constructed by hand. These are some very sturdy bookcases. Here’s a shot of my office, with books now happily situated.

DSCF7454

It took a while, but I eventually was able to get internet service in both my home and my office. Doing business here in Bonaire is somewhat more bureaucratized than it is in the states. Ordering internet service in a place of business requires papers authenticating the place of business and the person doing the ordering. This required that someone go by the Chamber of Commerce and get a certified copy of our “Uittreksel Uit Het Handelsregister” (that’s Dutch for “Uittreksel Uit Het Handelsregister”—something like evidence that you’re legitimately in business in Bonaire). After you tell them you want one, you go back a couple of days later to pick up the copy and pay the $11 fee. In the end, it took about two and a half weeks, but there’s now an internet connection in my office.

My other contact with Dutch bureaucracy was my first visit to the Immigration Office to apply for a work permit residency. That went off pretty much without a hitch, thanks to the expert assistance of Brandon Neal. Brandon’s the business administrator for TWR in Bonaire, and has completed this process for several of their folks. When got to the appointment, we did discover that we had one form that was incorrect (Americans complete a different form), but we were able to complete the correct one while we were there. We left the office with a six month extension stamp in my passport, and we should get the residency sometime in the next six weeks (this is something you could pray for, by the way).

Lots of people here have helped me with the transition. When I first arrived, I had planned to rent a car, but Francisco, a church member at IBC, generously provided me with a vehicle to use while I looked for one of my own—this little red Suzuki Samurai. This car is an adventure. One morning, when I sat down on the driver’s seat, I was rewarded with a splash of about a quart of refreshing rainwater from the canvas top. No big deal; things dry quickly in Bonaire.

DSCF7278b

As it turned out, I didn’t really do much of the looking for the new car. Amado, who is something like the facilitator of all things in Bonaire, started keeping an eye out for the right truck. After a couple of weeks, we found a very nice Toyota Tacoma. It’s a 2005 model, and hasn’t been driven much since it came to Bonaire—just over 7,100 miles. And it’s easier to buy a car in Bonaire than to buy internet service. NO TITLE, just a bill of sale. You do have to take the bill of sale to buy insurance (and don’t forget your passport), and then you have to take your insurance paper to the tax office to transfer the registration. But since the registration has already been paid for this year, transferring the registration cost me nothing.

DSCF7447b

Of course, I’ve had nothing but interesting experiences since I’ve been here. I’m taking the class they give to people who give guided tours (mostly to cruise ship passengers). The class is taught by Sue Felix (Amado’s wife), and covers everything from architecture to flamingos. Did you know that flamingos sit on their eggs to keep them cool?

The list of people who have been extremely helpful is a long list. Of course Walt & Lynne Bentsen are renting me my new house, have taken me diving, and fed me a number of times. Walt also supervised the installation of the AC and the bookcases in my office, among other things. The guys at TWR (Joe, Brad, Brandon, Dave, Dick, Kevin, and Donna) let me use their internet connection while I was waiting for my own. Dave and his wife, Mari, have had me over for supper twice. Michael Gaynor (he’s the Chat n’ Browse guy) has been introducing me to everyone on the island. The church’s elders, Bob Lassiter—who is Bob Johnston’s brother from another mother—and Brad Swanson, are providing me with good friendship and counsel. I’m sure they’ve kept me from stepping in it on more than one occasion already. And, of course, both Pastor Baran and Felicia have been extremely helpful.

Another highlight has been the opportunity to attend a monthly meeting for prayer with the Governor, Lydia Emerencia. A small group of pastors meet at her home, one of them gives a bit of a devotional message, and then she shares what’s on her mind and what she’d like us to pray for. Each time this has led to conversation about the current state of life on Bonaire, including the spiritual condition of the people. At last Friday’s meeting, the previous Governor, Herbert Domacasse, was also present. He is a believer, and I had met him on previous visits to the island (he actually attended a significant part of the Bible study methods seminar we gave here a few years ago). I can’t tell you what an educational privilege it is to get to spend time with these people.

Ministry-wise, things are going very well so far. I’m preaching a series called My Six Essential Convictions as a Pastor. Here they are:

  1. The Gospel of God’s grace in Christ is always at the center of the Christian life and of everything we do in the Church.
  2. The Bible is the written word of God about the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is the story of God’s grace toward sinners, not a personal life manual.
  3. The Church is first and foremost a mission organization. It exists to advance the Gospel among all sinners, not simply to serve the spiritual development of its members.
  4. Worship is not a service we attend on Sundays or a warm feeling we have toward God; rather, worship is the offering of our entire lives to God in response to His grace toward us in Christ.
  5. The Fellowship of the Body of Christ is discovered when each one sees himself as a member of a family, adopts the status of servant of all, and takes up the role of fellow laborer for the gospel.
  6. The Mission of the local Church is to advance the Gospel in our community as we demonstrate the love of God in Christ indiscriminately by all available means, and to partner with other Christians around the world as they do the same.

If you’re at CBC in Nashville, you’ll recognize these as a rewrite of the CORE series Byron recently completed. In fact, in some cases, there’s no rewrite.

We are also in the middle of the important process of selecting men to serve as elders. We are seeking to add several men to the board, and this week, they are considering whether they will be willing to serve. Please pray for us that the Lord will give us the men we need in this role.

Another item for prayer is our ministry to children on Sunday mornings. We have come to the conclusion that we need to serve children in their native language as much as possible. At the moment, we have a significant population of Dutch kids, and their lack of understanding of English makes participating in church a challenge. So we are working to organize parallel programs so that we can effectively serve our children. I’ll be meeting with Felicia and Brad this Friday to begin putting our basic strategy in place.

Finally, we’ve scheduled my official installation as Pastor here at IBC for Sunday, December 8, by which time my residency should have been approved. December is actually a great time to visit Bonaire. Allow me to illustrate: Average high and low temp in Nashville in December: 51 and 31. Seattle? 46 and 36. Denver? 46 and 16. Brrrr. Bonaire? 85 and 77. The “coldest” temperature ever recorded in December in Bonaire was 68 degrees.

In any case, if you’re reading this, consider yourself officially invited to attend my installation. Give me a call if I can answer any questions about travel and lodging in Bonaire (my Skype number in the U.S. is 615-649-4452. Calling this number is like calling any number in Nashville). Of course, you can also email me at dhs316@gmail.com.

Thanks, everyone for your prayers. The Lord has been gracious in providing a smooth transition so far here in Bonaire. As always, however, I am more conscious than ever that I am attempting to do a job that is beyond my capabilities. Please pray for me and for the church and community here in Bonaire. Only God himself can make our ministry fruitful by generating faith in Christ in the hearts of sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit. What a blessing to be a beggar at the king’s table.

It’s time to let everyone know that I’m pursuing the possibility of taking on the role of Pastor at International Bible Church on the southern Caribbean island of Bonaire. Please pray for the Lord’s wisdom for me and for the IBC congregation. The congregational vote is going to happen as I’m in Bonaire with a mission team in June.

Now, anticipating some FAQs:

How can we pray?

At this point, my biggest prayer request is for the visit that will take place in June. I will be giving the morning message on June 16 and 23. Also, I’ll be spending two weeks on the island, so this is a great opportunity to get to know people better, and let them get to know me. On the 23, a meeting will be held for the congregation to vote on my candidacy. If that vote is affirmative, this trip will also provide an opportunity to get to work on the process, or at least the plan, of actually moving to Bonaire.

Please pray for clear wisdom and direction from the Lord for everyone involved in this important decision.

Please pray for me as I prepare to preach, to respond to questions, to talk about my understanding of church and ministry. Pray that the Spirit would enable me to respond well with the love of Christ in all of my interactions—that somehow I would be able to emulate Christ, being full of grace and truth.

Pastoring any church is really an impossible job. I have all the professional training and a fair amount of experience in church ministry, but the task is greater than any training and experience can accomplish. It requires the regular, active work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the pastor and in the hearts of the people. Please pray for this on my behalf (see Ephesians 3:14-21).

How did you get connected to International Bible Church?

Back in the 1980s, Community Bible Church started supporting a missionary by the name of Totoram Baran. At that time, he was serving in the multi-cultural city of Newark, New Jersey. In 2005, Pastor Baran moved to Bonaire and became the pastor at IBC. In 2006, we started sending short-term teams to Bonaire, and I was invited to fill the pulpit a couple of Sundays that fall so that Pastor Baran could take a vacation. Since then, we’ve sent teams every year or two, and I’ve also been back several times. The relationship between the two churches has continued to grow, and I’ve become something like CBC’s liaison to IBC.

A couple years back, Pastor Baran mentioned that he would need to retire soon. As I thought about IBC, and how CBC could help, and who could serve as Pastor there, I began to visualize what needed to be done to grow the church and advance the gospel in Bonaire. Eventually, it dawned on me that I might be the man for the job—that I already loved the people of IBC and wanted the opportunity to “strive together for the faith of the gospel” with them.

Where is Bonaire?

Bonaire is in the southern Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela (about 50 miles) and near the islands of Curacao and Aruba.

What language do they speak in Bonaire?

Fortunately, it seems that most people in Bonaire are able to speak English, though it is not the native language for most. The primary language is Papiamentu, a creole language with roots in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and perhaps some West African languages.

Bonaire is a multi-cultural place. The island has been governed by the Netherlands since the middle of the 17th century (except for a brief period of British rule in the early 1800s and a period of American and British protectorate during World War II). Consequently, Dutch is the official language and the main language of about 9% of the population. Perhaps because of the proximity to South America, 12% are native Spanish-speakers. Only about 3% are native English-speakers, but because American tourism is a significant part of the economic base of Bonaire, nearly everyone you meet has some ability to speak English.

If you have any other questions, feel free to post a comment or drop me an email.

Here’s a little something I wrote for our Christmas Concert at church. Several people have asked me for it, so I thought I’d post it here.

bethlehemB

It’s only in the incarnation that humanity bears the image of God the way God intended in the beginning. “If you’ve seen me,” Jesus said, “you’ve seen the Father.” As Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God.” In Hebrews, “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” None of these things could be said about him if he was not a man. When we say Jesus is “fully human,” we rarely stop to notice that he’s actually more fully human than we are—because he perfectly bears the image of God, which is broken and obscured in us. Because Jesus was born, we can see and know God’s true intention in the creation of humanity, which was to put himself on display in us. Without the baby Jesus, God remains invisible and unknown—both to us and through us. Without the baby Jesus, what it means to be a human being would be lost forever. It’s in the incarnation of the Son of God that humanity bears the image of God. The incarnation changes everything.

It’s only in the incarnation that God shares in the whole human experience, including the suffering of alienation from God. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The Son of God knows firsthand what it is to be one of us—even to the extent of death—to the extent of alienation from the Father—some kind of disruption in the eternal joyful fellowship of the Trinity! Because Jesus was born, there is no man or woman or boy or girl who can say, “God doesn’t understand what I’m going through.” Without the baby Jesus, God remains distant and unsympathetic and angry. Without the baby Jesus, we remain as we are: dying and alone. In the incarnation, God shares and understands the whole human condition. The incarnation changes everything.

It’s only in the incarnation that Grace and Truth—that Justice and Mercy—have a meeting place: in the atoning sacrifice of the human Jesus. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” John wrote, “and we beheld His glory, the glory of the Only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth … And of his fullness we have all received, and grace on top of grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.” And Paul wrote to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith … for the demonstration of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” To die for us, Jesus must be one of us—one with no sin of his own. The blood pumping through the veins and lighting up the face of that tiny one in the manger is the same blood that is poured out on the ground at the foot of the cross. Because Jesus was born, God can declare sinners righteous and still call himself righteous. Without the baby Jesus, God is all truth and justice, and no grace and mercy. Without the baby Jesus, we are all, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “condemned already.” In the incarnation, Grace and Truth find a meeting place. The incarnation changes everything.

It’s only in the incarnation that it makes sense to speak of a resurrection. The risen Savior is not an angel or a spirit or a life force or, as some say, just a compelling idea. The risen Savior is a man—the same man whose mother laid him in a feedbox when he was born—the same man who went missing when he was twelve because, as he put it “I had to be in my Father’s house”—the same man who begged his friends to pray with him the night before he died, but then they all deserted him. It is the incarnate Christ—not some ghost—who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Son of God remains one of us, and “ever lives to make intercession for us.” Because Jesus was born, He is the firstborn of the resurrection. Without the baby Jesus, Christ is not raised from the dead, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” Without the baby Jesus, there is no hope of eternal life—no future. The incarnation changes everything.

When Jesus was born, nobody noticed—except a few people to whom God made special announcements, and one paranoid politician. Jesus was born in a shed by the side of the road in a backwater town.  But the fact that “God has sent his only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” is the single most important event in all of human history. Because Jesus became one of us, we can know what it really means to be one of us. Because Jesus became one of us, we know that we are not alone in our suffering. Because Jesus became one of us, we can experience the blessing of God’s lovingkindness instead of the nightmare of his wrath. Because Jesus became one of us, we have hope in the promise that we will be like him in his resurrection. The incarnation changes everything.

Once again, we’re posting the audio and handouts from my Sunday School class here at Taking Up Space. To go the audio page, click here. You can download the audio files by right-clicking the Audio links, or you can listen online by clicking the players for each lesson.