The Valley of Mexico at Nezahualcóyotl, a suburb of Mexico City -- twenty-one million people, almost as many as the entire population of Australia, all within easy sight of its surrounding hills.
Twenty-three years ago a friend, Rabbi Samuel Lehrer, invited me to visit his synagogue in Mexico City. On a business trip from our home in Chihuahua state, I took him up on the offer. Only I could not have guessed what a life-changing experience awaited me there. This is my report, written shortly after the event:
Warm sunlight filtered through the haze over Mexico City on February 20, 1987. Upon arrival on the seventh floor of my hotel I rolled my room-side window wide open and beheld the scene before me.
Range upon range of blue mountains surrounded the Valley of Mexico. Palm trees, shining green, marked wide avenues down to Tlatelolco, Ixtapalapa, and Coyoacán. Then, to my delight, the haze lifted along the eastern horizon and the volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl stood high above the valley, their snow crowned peaks gleaming white in the sun.
For the first time in my life I saw blue sky over the Valley of Mexico. I lifted my eyes unto the hills and praised the maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1). But the joy in my heart was not complete.
Below the great volcanoes, below the warm blue sky, directly below my window, lay the slums. The roar of traffic never ends in Mexico City. Above its noise I could scarcely hear the shouts of children playing, and of countless pedestrians on the streets -- streets smelling like hot rubber and oil, disappearing with the rest of everything into an ocean of low buildings of cement block and tar paper, dirty concrete and junk-strewn alleyways.
My eyes travelled over the vast scene, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, from Tultitlán and Xalostoc, across the ciudad perdida (lost city) of Nezahualcóyotl. Fifteen million people in the valley of Mexico: crime, misery, and confusion, I pondered the contrast of heaven and hell before me.
God and Man
Looking up and around me, I saw God. Looking down, I saw man. And it seemed that there was no connection between the two.
I thought of God, longsuffering, good, and not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). I thought of Jesus Christ who loves man and washes man from sin (Rev. 1:5). Yet before my eyes I saw multitudes of souls in misery. "Who," I cried within, "who shall bring man and God back together? Who shall stand in the gap? Who, or what, shall lift us humans out of our confusion and teach us the order and peace of God?"
Far to my right crouched the Cerro de la Estrella where Aztec priests once cut up young men for human sacrifice. On my left I could see the Basilica of Guadalupe, Latin America’s greatest shrine. Religion! I shuddered at the thought. How well I knew that religion had not answered the cries of this great city in distress.
Tires screeched and wailing sirens came and went below me, where thirty-six lanes of traffic flowed through the junction of Insurgentes-Cuitláhuac. Only minutes before I had walked there on foot. The pavement was hot. Pollution burned my eyes. Then I happened to see a little boy, somewhere on an island in the raging streams of the intersection. He had chiclettes to sell. He had arranged them, neatly, on top of a cardboard box. But he lay on his tummy in the dirt beside it, asleep, with his cute mouth open. When I woke him to leave some money he did not speak. He may have been four years old, and I saw that his tummy was swollen and his eyes were glassy.
I thought of him now, dying within sight of the great Basilica, and within a few blocks of a Protestant church.
To my eyes returned the sight of countless mothers, babies tied to their backs, begging, or trying to sell something to stay alive. I remembered wild-eyed youths, blowing fire amidst traffic and asking with charred lips for money. Every few minutes I saw the passing blur of a metro train, shooting down to La Raza station, and I thought of the sweating multitudes of religious people -- religious, but wandering far astray from God.
Hard questions came to me as I stood looking out over the world’s largest city that Friday afternoon. A religious city. But had any of its religions helped it at all? A Christian city. But was it any different or better than a Hindu city, a Muslim city, or the Aztec city it used to be? Did it perhaps have just the wrong kind of Christianity? That would have been a handy solution for me. But I knew it was no solution. If my own kind of Christianity was the right kind, why had it done even less than the rest, for Mexico City? I wished I could say that one person out of every five million in the Valley of Mexico was a member of my church. But even that would have been an exaggeration. I wished I could say my church was planning to open 150 missions, one for every 100,000 people here, but logic told me that even such a modest venture would be entirely out of reach.
Let down by religion, swept off my feet by the desperation of humanity around me, I no longer knew where to stand or what to hold on to. It seemed to me that everything had gone off course. Every government had failed to make the people happy. Every religion had failed to answer their cries of distress. It seemed to me that everything, without plan or purpose, was going from bad to worse, bound for destruction in hell.
Then I fell down and cried to God for help.
Several hours later I emerged with a river of pedestrians from the brightly-lit metro station at Chapultepec. A cab took me back past Maximilian and Carlota’s castle, up narrow streets, and around many turns, into a part of Mexico City I had never seen. In the glow of street lamps I saw wealthy homes, limousines, and many flowers.
Enlightened at Bet-Israel
The cab stopped at number 1140, Boulevard de los Virreyes, and I walked past a guard, through an iron gate into the Bet-Israel conservative Jewish synagogue. A girl took my bag and searched it. A tall teenager greeted me in Hebrew, "Shabat Shalom," then slid an electronic club down my sides and up my legs, to detect hidden weapons.
The synagogue was dark. Black upholstery covered the chairs of its large auditorium. Dark panelling stood along its high, rectangular walls. But light shone from above upon the Rabbi reading the Law from a high pulpit on stage.
After a day in Mexico City I breathed deeply of reverence and order in the Bet-Israel synagogue. There were no ornaments in the building. Everything was square and plain. There was no organ. Only the lilting voice of an adolescent boy leading Hebrew songs from a book called The Beauty of Holiness.
There were no images like in great Christian churches of the city. There was no stomping of feet nor clapping of hands. No talk about creeds, or councils, or the founding fathers of any "group." But there was order, and the Law of God.
The Rabbi read from the book of the Law and I recognized the words of God. Little children got up and recited by memory, portions of the Law. The Law stood, tall ancient scrolls, in the centre at the front of the synagogue. After the service everyone gathered to eat a meal prepared as written in the Law of God.
The ancient Law refreshed my soul as I talked that night with Jews from Latin America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. I realized that by keeping God’s Laws they had kept themselves closer to God than most Christians of Mexico City. I could have envied them with their orderly, simple, religion, that I knew they had received directly from God more than four thousand years ago.
The Law, God’s orderly rule from heaven, given as Moses said "so that it may be well with you," suddenly appeared to me as the missing link in what I had long been taught and come to believe.
I came to the synagogue, a modern Mennonite Evangelical, expecting to find nothing but an old oriental faith. Now while I heard the Rabbi preaching from the lighted scrolls of the Law up front, a light came on in my soul. It did not come from the scrolls. It did not come from the Rabbi and his well-dressed, worldly audience. It came as my inner being identified and laid hands on something eternal, something hidden deep within those laws once given to Moses.
That "something" corresponded at once with what I had known as a conservative Anabaptist child. It matched what I experienced as a fifteen-year-old when I gave my life to Jesus and decided to follow him. But I suspected right away that here I was onto something far more than just Judaism, just Christianity, or the Anabaptist way. The rabbi wanted to talk with me, but I left him standing at the open doorway of the synagogue. I ran down the steps, hopped into a cab for Chapultepec, then hastened by Metro to my hotel where I fell upon my Bible to see what it said.
My suspicions were confirmed. My old concepts of this religion vs. that one, this way of doing things vs. the other, melted away as I read the Scriptures book after book, skimming through the entire Old Testament and the New, that night on the seventh floor, and realized the Rabbi had spoken the truth:
God’s Laws (of which Moses’ laws were only a dim reflection) are forever.
God’s orderly peaceful rule by Law, his Kingdom, is not of the Jews or of the Christians or of any small sect alone. It is universal. Even the date palms, the twittering birds, and all the animals in the zoo at Chapultepec Park, it suddenly dawned on me, live and move in God’s Kingdom to the degree that they live and move within his universal Law.
As the pieces came together, one after the next, I realized, to my amazement, exactly how God has always connected with us errant humans through his all-pervasive Law. His Law revealed through the prophets. His Law built into our bodies, written onto our hearts and minds, telling us what is right and wrong, whether we stand innocent or guilty before him.
We cannot help it. God made us that way. All of us (all modernism, atheism, paganism, notwithstanding) always live above guilt, in guilt, struggling to deny or escape the guilt we rightly deserve for breaking God’s universal all-pervasive Law. Our crushing guilt, our cry for innocence, is the essence of all religion. The structure of society. The issue that divides us humans from the animal world.
But that was not all. Moving from the Old Testament into the New, that night on the seventh floor, I was stunned, I was thrilled, I fell down and worshipped our Lord Jesus when I saw him for the first time as God’s eternal law in human form, in the life and body of a man for us to follow. Far better than the prophets, far more than just a code or a book, our Saviour, our Redeemer, our hero and friend walked the path before us to show us exactly where to go.
Jesus as Lawgiver
Jesus is the true Law and Lawgiver (the Word) of God.
In Jesus’ teaching and commands, in the pattern of his and his first disciples’ lives, I caught a vision for the first time of God’s perfect Law, his Kingdom come, his will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus the fulfillment of all that Moses had said. Jesus, champion of one universal order, one Way, one Truth, one Life, holding together every swirling atom in every living, moving, created thing in this world and beyond (Colossians 1:17).
What could I do but roll my room-size window all the way back to behold the Valley of Mexico, at one in the morning, in an altogether new and heavenly light?
There I stood in the presence of Jesus, unspeakably much more than just my "personal Saviour." Jesus my Lord. My King. Regent on earth of God’s universal rule. Overcome, I could do nothing but step, without looking back, from my former life as a mere Anabaptist, a Mennonite missionary, into the infinitely wider, deeper and higher scope of allegiance to universal Law and the majesty of God.
Out of the narrow confines of human sectarianism, into the safety, the delight, the heavenly exultation of brotherhood and sisterhood with all in whose hearts lies the seed of the Kingdom of God.
No longer did the suburb of Nezahualcóyotl with its divisions of Chimalhuacan, Texcoco, Ecatepec, La Paz and Atenco lie in front of me as a sprawling ciudad perdida (lost city). Now I knew its people were not far from God. Now I could identify with Paul, standing on Mars hill, looking out over Athens: "Listen everyone! Don’t tell me you don’t know God. Why, you’ve been obeying him or rebelling against him all your lives without being aware of it! You live, you move, you have your being in God. Let go of your confusing religions -- look for the Kingdom of God within you! Open your eyes to the Light that shines in your hearts! See his face? His name is Jesus! You will find his rules, all he will ever ask of you, already written within you, in every cell of your human flesh and blood. Call on him, reach out to him and you will find him, though he is not far from any one of you. . . . "
Now as I stood at my wide open window I knew that God had not abandoned the unhappy city before me.
From Atzcapotzalco to Xochitepec and Zapotitlán, an ocean of golden lights spread across the valley floor. The Basilica shone from the Cerro de Tepeyac. The ceaseless roar of traffic filled my ears. Sirens wailed. Tires screeched. The tragedy of millions in need lay heavy upon me. I remembered the pornography, the sleeping drunks, the haggard mothers, and the metro crowds that had thronged about me that day. I remembered the little chicle seller. But underneath and around it all I now heard the heavenly promise of the restitution of all things -- everything, everyone purged through cataclysmic fire, evil destroyed, all creation restored to its original splendour in new heavens and on a new earth where righteousness dwells.
For the first time in my life I began to see the brown-skinned, black-haired multitude around me, not as so many devils in human flesh, but as men, women and children, created like me in the image and order of God -- made to be good because God stamped the Law of his Kingdom into their hearts. Even though trapped in sin (another law at work in their members), the all-involving order of God in and around them, still told them what was right and wrong, urging them to repentance, bringing them to Jesus, the true Light that enlightens everyone born into the world (John 1:9).
Jesus, through whom the grace of God has appeared to all men for their salvation (Titus 2:11).
Jesus, with his Law of the Spirit of Life, able to set all men free from the law of of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
The Law of Faith, the Royal Law, the Perfect Law of Liberty, the Law of Christ (Romans 3:27, James 2:8, James 1:25, Romans 6:2). Everything that came to me that night in the Valley of Mexico spoke to me of God’s invincible foundational order, his Law built into all creation, convicting, saving, accusing or defending even Gentiles that have never heard his name (Romans 2:14).
In a flood of relief, I (the missionary) then began to realize, like Paul, that the people in Mexico City’s guilt or innocence did not depend upon what I said or upon what my church was doing a thousand miles away. It depended on God drawing them toward him, from within. Certainly we preachers, we missionaries, need to work with God as he gets that done. But the people’s current distress does not depend on me, on my religion or government for its remedy. It depends only on Jesus, rising up to overthrow the rule of Satan, to bring an end to sin, to reconquer the earth and establish God’s Law forever in new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells.
On February 20, 1987, the Lord Jesus recruited me, in Rabbi Samuel Lehrer’s synagogue in Mexico City, to service in the army of the Kingdom of God.
* * * * * *
Twenty-three years have passed since I wrote this paper. Years of intense struggle, of challenges, dangers, and spiritual triumph in places around the world. Has it been a good fight?
I must answer with a joyful, unqualified, YES!
Only the fight is not yet over. Let us stand fast, let us go out and conquer, until the end comes.
Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321