Gracias, Senõr

The van ride up the side of the mountain on the curvy, bumpy, Guatemalan gravel road was just short of being a health hazard; however, that fact didn’t really seem to bother the load of mission team members laughing and talking, trying to get phone reception, and generally having a wonderful time…

“Volcano!” “Where?” “Quick—open the window!” “Where’s my phone? Move your head!”

“Does anyone want one of these chips I got at the store?” “What are they?” “Spicy.” “I mean, what are they called?” “I don’t know—I can’t pronounce it.”

“I’m serious, ya’ll—another six inches closer to the edge and we’d’ve been communion wafers.”

“How do you say ‘Jesus loves you’ in Spanish?” “Jesus te ama.” “Jesus te amo?” “No—Jesus te ama.” “What’s the difference?” “The difference between good grammar and bad grammar.” “They have grammar in Spanish?”

“Does anybody have any Dramamine?” “I have spicy chips and hand sanitizer.” “Not helping.”

This was my third mission trip to Guatemala and, regardless of the day of the week or the mission-trip-related activities of the day, the trip through the countryside was never boring.

Sunday mornings were especially exciting, though, as we always made arrangements to attend church services at one of the churches in the area. (Where else would a bunch of Baptists and Methodists be on Sunday morning?) One of the ministers on our team would deliver the message in English via an interpreter, the locals would sing (we would clap along, clueless as to what they were saying), and we would all—both Americans and Guatemalans—enjoy the chance to get a peek at a culture not our own. This particular Sunday we were going to church in the little mountain village of Paraxaj, a place no one on the mission team had ever been, not even the long-time mission trippers.

We pulled up in front of a simple, cream-colored church with Iglesia de Dios Bethesda—Church of God Bethesda—hand-lettered across the front and piled out to stretch our cramped legs and shake off the two-hour roller coaster van ride. As we made our way up the steps and inside the church, we could see that the area in front of the pulpit was filled with flowers—not flowers from a florist, but flowers that grew wild in the small yards in and around the simple tin or block houses in the village, flowers that would have made any American florist envious. Their beauty and colors were rivaled only by those of the clothing the women were wearing.

Everyone in the congregation had on their Sunday best. The men all had on jackets and the women wore hand-woven skirts and shawls in beautiful, vividly rich colors. Maybe they dressed that way for church every Sunday or maybe they dressed up just for our visit—either way, it was a welcoming and enchanting sight.

As we took our seats and waited for the service to begin, smiling dark-haired women brought us each a bottle of water, while someone else brought in a huge bowl of apples, no doubt picked from a nearby tree, for us to snack on on our way back to the mission house. It was kind of like being on an airplane, except the snacks were free, there was lots of leg room, and everyone was happy to be there.

And then out came the cameras. Since hardly anyone from our group spoke any Spanish and no one from theirs spoke any English, the camera bearers resorted to pointing to the person and then to the camera, which in universal sign language apparently means, “Can I take your picture?” (That motion also looks a lot like, “Can I give you my camera?” Fortunately, there were no misunderstandings.) Soon, phones (and a few real cameras) were filled with images of beautiful brown-skinned women and dark-eyed babies, pictorial reminders of what, by consensus, would later be deemed an unforgettable day.

The service was warm and enjoyable. The church band, led by the accordion player, played a mix of familiar hymns and unfamiliar worship tunes, all sung in Spanish, in a musical style that was kind of a mix of zydeco and Tejano with a local Guatemalan twist. At one point, I turned to my friend Grace and whispered, “I think that’s ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus!'” Before long, our entire group was clapping and singing along in English to kinda-sorta-but-not-entirely familiar versions of “At the Cross” and “Glory to His Name.”

During church, Guatemalans all sing—loudly—and, when it’s time to pray, they all pray—loudly. None of this bowing heads reverently and listening to someone else pray—prayer is a participant sport in Guatemala. And it was during one of those group prayer times that I learned—or rather was taught by the Holy Spirit—an amazing lesson in being thankful.

Actually, that prayer time started out as singing led by one of the worship leaders, although at some point I realized her singing had gradually morphed into prayer; and not just her, but the rest of the local congregation with her; and not just prayer, but heart-felt crying out to the Lord. It was at that point that I began to pick out a phrase repeated over and over from the young singer who was now leading in prayer.

Whereas in English we say, “Thank you, Lord, for _____” (fill in the blank), in Spanish they say, “Gracias, Senõr, por ___” (fill in the blank; or llene el espacio). And while, with my limited Spanish, I can’t tell you what she was thanking El Señor for, I can tell you that, based on the part I could understand, she had mucho to be thankful for.

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

Over and over she prayed, thanking the Lord. I couldn’t help but open one eye to watch her pray, mesmerized by her fervent prayer of gratitude. With eyes shut tightly and hands and face lifted upward, she thanked her Lord and savior…

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

For what? I thought. A tiny place to live without electricity or indoor plumbing?

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

A diet that consisted mostly of corn tortillas and meager vegetables grown by the front door?

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

An income so far below the American standard of poverty that it wouldn’t even register?

¿Gracias, Senõr? ¿Por qué? For what?

I stood there watching her, listening to her weep as she repeatedly thanked God, trying to imagine what she was thankful for. In my salaried, 9-to-5, home-owning, credit card-wielding, pantry-full-of-groceries existence I had trouble imagining what could possibly merit that sort of thanksgiving. I closed the one eye I was watching her with and joined her in prayer.

What am I missing here? I asked the Lord. I’m no expert on Guatemalan economics, but in the three weeks’ worth of mission trips I’ve spent there I have a pretty good idea what material possessions she most likely had—or didn’t have. And, yes, I understand the difference in our perception of wealth in America versus that same perception in a country like Guatemala. We get all teary-eyed at their lack of, what we imagine to be, the necessities of life, a lack they don’t seem to perceive. Even so…

Please help me, Lord; help me to understand, to be as grateful in my own life as this young woman. If I was her, what would I thank you for?

As someone who has been redeemed by the selfless sacrifice of Jesus, I have much to be thankful for, and I have an innate desire to express that thanks—being a Christian, it’s built into my spiritual hard wiring. But it seems that my prayers of thanks always start with stuff. Why stuff? Why “thank you for the food on my table” before “thank you for saving my wretched, disobedient, drowning-in-the-muck-and-mire-of-sin soul?” Both are great things and definitely gifts from God; but, while I could do with a lot less of the former, I don’t want to—can’t—even imagine doing without the latter.

Most admonitions to be thankful in the Bible seem to focus on the divine and not the material…

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. Psalm 106:1

I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High. Psalm 7:17

Maybe it’s just easier to look around and see God’s blessings in the things within my gaze than to fix my eyes…

…not on what is seen, but what is unseen. 2 Corinthians 4:18

But what if the things within my gaze weren’t within my gaze any longer? What would I thank you for then, Lord?

No doubt the same things my Guatemalan sister in Christ was thanking El Senõr for…

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

…a church home and church family with which to worship.

“Gracias, Senõr, por…”

…another day to live and serve you, to see the beauty in your creation.

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

…sending your only begotten Son to give His life to redeem mine.

Gracias, Senõr, por…”

…the hope of eternity where I’ll be in your glorious presence, a fact that will make any- and everything I have or don’t have in this life totally insignificant.

By the end of her prayer I understood. Just like me, she had plenty to thank the Lord for…

Give thanks in all circumstances… 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In spite of being seemingly poor by American standards, she was abundantly rich by God’s standards. After all, love, mercy, grace—all priceless.

Gracias, Senõr. Amen

She pulled her beautiful, Solomon-in-all-his-splendor-surpassing shawl tightly around her shoulders and took her seat on the front row.

Gracias, Senõr, por… bringing me all this way to teach me the true meaning of thanksgiving.

It was worth the trip…

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6 thoughts on “Gracias, Senõr

  1. Fantastic! I appreciate the reminder to always thank the Lord in and for all things. Even when we mess it up and miss the mark trying to hear the Spirit, He knows and fulfills our souls…maybe not our wants, but for sure our souls. I pray we all hear and understand this message and share it.

    I also loved the laughs and can still hear so many of those things being said in the vans, but what a glorious inconvenience to help us understand our blessings!

    Love you much, and pray God brings us together for another trip.

    • Thank you for these great thoughts, my brother. I would be really disappointed if we didn’t end up back down there again. Praying for God’s blessings for you and your family at this Thanksgiving season.

  2. Maybe she was thanking our Lord for Christian Americans who gave up their air conditioned homes, 9-5 jobs and friends/family to come there and spread God’s love. Maybe she was thanking God for people in other countries who still love one another, even if they are different. And maybe she was thanking God that instead of a band of gun toteing rebels coming to kill them, there was a group of bible carrying Christians coming to worship with them. We ALL have so much to be thankful for, if we would just do it. Thank you for sharing this story and as always with such graceful and eliquent words. I’m thankful for many things, people and gifts. One of them is you! I thank God for You Dusty Teague; for being real and open and godly.

    Mucho amor y gracias.

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