A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala
December 3, 2009
Each time I travel to the United States after many months away, I encounter a new device that has come into widespread usage. Two years ago, I found motion-activated paper towel dispensers in many public restrooms. These seemed superfluous at the time, but perhaps they make more sense in light of a new influenza epidemic.
This fall as I traveled around the mid-Atlantic region of the United States as part of World Mission Challenge ’09, I was introduced to Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) devices. In Guatemala, many commercial vehicles have GPS tracking devices that allow them to be located in the case of theft, but GPS devices that provide driving directions are unknown.
As I was driven from one meeting with Presbyterians excited about mission to another, a voice issued instructions from a little box. When I had to drive myself around a city I had never visited before, these directions got me to where I needed to be without any problem. But I found myself paying much more attention to the disembodied voice filling the car than to the landmarks I was passing. I wonder how such devices are changing our relationship to the landscape around us.
When my husband Javier was growing up in Managua, Nicaragua, there were no street signs or maps. Javier found his way around by learning where things are located in relationship to certain landmarks. To this day, this is the way he navigates, even after living in the United States and Guatemala for many years.
I think of my students Carmelina and Loida Rebeca as they and their extended families walk along the paths between the corn fields that link their houses in the village of Pachaj, Cantel. They have been kind enough to teach me which paths to take so I don’t get lost amid the tall cornstalks this time of year. I think of Rosario and her three boys working their way from coffee tree to coffee tree to pick the beans along paths they have already traveled several times during this harvest. No need for signs or maps or GPS devices. They know this land.
Advent brings to mind Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph already knew the way. Or maybe they asked directions from the people they met along the road. I also think of Jesus and the band of men, women and children who accompanied him, talking to the local people and asking which road they should take to the next village.
As we come face to face with the Babe of Bethlehem at Christmas, we are confronted with the wonder of the incarnation. God, the creator of all that is, chose to learn of creation from the inside, through human experience and human ways of knowing. Like any other child, Jesus learned to talk by interacting with those around him. He absorbed patterns of behavior and ways of understanding the world from the culture in which he grew up. He learned the landmarks and which paths to take.
Within a particular culture and context, Jesus embodied God’s will for creation. He identified with the lost and the least, placing them at the center of the community he formed around himself and his vision of God’s coming Reign. He called women and men to join him in carrying out God’s mission in the world.
Christ’s call to participate in God’s mission still comes to us today. Sometimes I think we treat the call to mission as if it were a disembodied voice speaking to us out of a GPS device, telling us where to go and what to do. All we need to do is to follow the voice to be faithful.
But the logic of Christmas points to a different way. Upon entering a new context, we must first be willing to learn, to become, like Jesus says, as children. We should let those who are already there teach us their ways of communicating and their ways of understanding the world. We need them to show us the pathways of their lives, to tell us where to go and what to do. Only then will we be able to build community with them as together we strive to live out God’s call to mission and work for a world in which none are lost or considered least.
May we allow the logic of Christmas to carry us into the coming year. May we be attentive to the contours of the landscape and to the landmarks along the way as we journey onward. May we ask those who live in the places where we engage in mission to give us directions, to tell us which paths to follow as we walk beside them.
In Christmas joy,
Karla Ann Koll
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 277