I left my hotel, after getting only 4 hours of sleep. I was groggy and a little cranky. My usual taxi driver couldn’t make it, so he sent a replacement. He asked if I was a priest. I told him that I’m a minister—a type of priest who gets to get married and have kids. He asked if I was Catholic. I said no, that I’m evangelical. (In Peru, non-Catholics are evangelicals or Christians. It’s painful for me that Catholics do not consider themselves to be Christian.) He proceeded to tell me about how he attended a seminary for three years, preparing to be a priest. In the end, he chose to get married, have kids and become a taxi driver. He’s been driving the same route for more than 50 years!
As we chatted, I decided to ask him “The Big Question.” The Big Question is “who is Jesus.” My friend H.L. Hussman says that you can believe a lot of things, but if you get this question wrong, you won’t make it into heaven. It’s the ultimate witnessing tool. The taxi driver answered the question, saying, “Jesus is always on my thoughts.” There was no mention of Jesus as savior or Lord. For the majority of Peruvians, Jesus is a 2nd tier player in the Pantheon of the gods. It seems, at times, in latin culture that Christ’s main purpose is to remind us how important it is to suffer. (The Pantheon was that place in Greek and Roman mythology where the gods would hang out—sort of like Starbucks, but with better prices.) The big player in the Peruvian pantheon is Mary. Peruvians have a saying that the wife is the real boss of the house. As such, Mary has the final say in what goes down in heaven. Hanging from the taxi driver’s mirror was a picture frame with a picture on each side. One side had a photo of a European statue of Mary in the style of the middle ages. She was, of course, white and about 11 years old. (It galls me that people here believe it’s better to be white. Dark skinned people are, to them, of lesser value. Mary, as a Jew, was not white!) The statue was wearing a huge crown and robes that would have made Luis XIV sweat gallons. On the other side was a photo of a plaster statue of Jesus. He was also white, with long blonde hair. He was NOT wearing a crown. Instead, he got to wear clothes made for a girl. He was, and ever shall be, about 3 years old.
This is the point where my honeymoon with Peru was over. Usually, I’m very cordial and gentle when confronting paganism. But, after a year here, I’m also frustrated. It appears to me that nobody is speaking the truth here. Paganism is so ingrained in the Peruvian identity that to speak against worshipping a statue is to speak against who they are. Jesus came to save us from these lies! I showed him the picture of Mary and asked, “What’s this?”
He said, “It’s the mother of God!”
I said, “The mother of God never wore a gold crown or fine robes.”
He laughed and said, “Yea. She’s really important. She intervenes for us with Jesus. She gets us what we want. When my daughter was born, there were complications. I went to Mary and she intervened, making Jesus give us what we wanted. My daughter was born healthy and now she’s a doctor. All of this good fortune was due to Mary. You have to pray to Mary to get what you want.”
I said, “Don’t you fear God? God has made it clear in the Bible that we are not to worship pagan idols. Of the 10 commandments, the first is that there is only one God and you should worship him alone. God is very offended that you would worship Mary. She is a saint, worthy of honor, but she is human. She is saved by Jesus, just like you and I. She is not omnipresent. She doesn’t hear our prayers and she doesn’t have the authority to tell God what to do. This is nothing more than paganism and it is very offensive to God.”
He said, “Yea, but she sure worked for me. She gives me good luck all the time. That’s why I keep that photo there. She keeps my car running and all my kids have grown up to be professionals.”
I said, “I think God had grace one you and you’ve chosen to give the credit to Mary.”
He said, “Yea, I hear what you’re saying, but I think it doesn’t matter what a person believes—it’s just important to believe something.”
I replied, “My friend, that’s loco. If I believed the street was made out of water, it wouldn’t be true.”
He said, “You’re right there.”
I continued, “God has already told us what we’re supposed to believe about him. He has made it clear that there is only one God and that we should not worship anyone else. He has told us clearly that no matter how good with think someone else is, we are not to worship or pray to that person. God is offended by that. I don’t want to believe things that are false, just because they suit my personal tastes. I want to know God for who he really is and have a real relationship with a real person. That’s what God wants too. That is why he gave us the Bible. But in Peru, the majority of Catholics don’t want to read the Bible and they don’t want to know what God has said about himself.”
He agreed, saying, “You got that right! Catholics never want to read the Bible.” He continued, pointing to a pocket area in his dash, “I’ve got a New Testament right here.”
I replied, “I’m glad to see that.”
He said, “Yea, I had a chemical engineer from Nasa in my taxi once. He tried to tell me that we’re nothing more than dirt and chemicals, but I don’t agree. That guy was an example of how people make up crazy things to believe.”
I said, “You’re right, which is why it is so important to read the Bible and know what God has said about himself.” I then flipped the picture frame over and pointed to the picture of Jesus. I asked, “What’s that?”
He shouted in great triumph, “It the little boy, Jesus!”
I replied, “That is not the little boy Jesus. That is a plaster statue from Europe. Besides, Jesus isn’t a little boy, he’s an adult.”
“No!” He replied, in surprise, “He’s a little boy. It’s important to pray to the little boy, because he gives me what I want.”
I said, “He’s not a little boy anymore. He’s an adult. In fact, he’s a lot older than you are. I would hate it if my father adored a photo of me from when I was three years old, rather than having a real relationship me. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m an adult and I have adult relationships. We can’t just worship whatever we want. Jesus wants a real relationship.”
He said, “Yea,…whatever.”
That is where the conversation ended. We were at the airport and it was time to get out. With one simple word, he disregarded everything I said.
That is how many, though not all, conversations end here. Whatever. It’s painful, but it is not the end of the story. I remember a time when a friend in High School invited me to a Charismatic prayer meeting. She said, “People pray in tongues there.”
I told her, “No thanks, I’m satisfied with my current spirituality.” I was completely involved in drugs and the partying lifestyle. I had no spirituality. But I remember that invitation. God was wooing me. In Rev. 3:20, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” My friend’s invitation was one knock on the door. A few knocks later, I opened the door. People ask us, “What do you do in Peru?” My answer: Knock.