“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:7
I suppose it was spiritual embarrassment responsible for the guilt-ridden sense of shame I felt. “I am so-so sorry, Lord. How could I have ever doubted you? I will soon be 50 years old and not once have you ever abandoned me, not in the pulpit or in life. I have faced villainous people and threatening situations more times than I can possibly count. Mountains I couldn’t climb, rivers I couldn’t swim, valleys I couldn’t cross yet, I’m here, I made it, still going – Please, forgive me.”
Sitting down for lunch the mood was festive. “The devil got a black eye this morning”, I heard someone say. “Sent off packing”, another voice chimed in. The battle on the Amazon an hour or two earlier had gone unimaginably good. Fourteen people had made decisions for Christ with a dozen or so more seeking prayer. Every team member was with someone, no one sat idle, God showed up, and showed out. The pats on the back (though undeserved) were as free flowing as the river, “Great job, Pat”. That was an amazing sermon, brother, did you see the look on their faces? Those people were truly convicted, weren’t they?”
Truth is, whatever the content of the message was, I haven’t the slightest. I wanted to remember, I wanted to capture whatever words I had said and hold them hostage for use another time. Much like Winston Churchill’s 1939 radio statement concerning Russia, however, the entire sermon remained “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. My only explanation for the lapse in memory is simple, though; it wasn’t me, the words weren’t mine.
Sitting there the center of attention, the man of the hour, the guy with a word from God receiving a boatload of accolades, I wanted to scream out aloud; “Stop it! Just stop it! Don’t you guys get it? That wasn’t me out there this morning. The man you saw nonchalantly moving about with a bible in his hand doing whatever it was he was doing, that was a zombie – dead man walking. The voice you heard, that wasn’t mine. Like John the Baptist, I was but a voice crying out in the wilderness (the jungle, or the rain forest, whichever you prefer to call it), but more like doubting Thomas than John the Baptist. God stepped up to the plate this morning, ladies and gentlemen; he took the bat out of my hands, he hit the ball, he drove in the runs – it wasn’t me.”
I joined the celebration letting the world see a smiling face, but the heart of shame that pounded in my chest they did not see. I had not trusted God at the breakfast table, I had tried to manufacture a sermon on my own. The fact of my not knowing anything at all about the people I would preach too, their manners and customs, their language, the idioms and other parts of speech peculiar to their language never entered my mind. I was just mindlessly going through the motions of regularity doing things as I always have. I had a lot to learn on this trip, and there was so much to learn about. A foreign people, a foreign land, myself, and the God I thought I knew. It’s funny in a way, finding out how little how much we think we know about God is.
No one kept count. We had handed out at least a case of bibles and two packages of “Good News” gospel tracts, both in Spanish. The morning’s effort had been something I would imagine similar to the events of Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Other than people talking and the boats engine begging for more Pennzoil, I didn’t hear a sound nor did I feel a breeze. Little doubt, though, a mighty rushing wind had made its way down from heaven sweeping over the bow of the boat. I don’t think I spoke in a language not my own, I’m not certain, but my preaching tongue was definitely under the control of the Holy Spirit.
Walking through the boat a little later, I fully expected to see the bibles and tracts laying around without a crease in the page and definitely not dog-eared. Many times I have passed out literature at public gatherings and events later finding them littering the ground or tossed in a garbage can. Many years ago I was asked by a concerned parishioner to visit with her brother who had been convicted of killing a convenience store clerk in an armed robbery and now sat on death row in Huntsville, Texas. Knowing he would soon step into eternity, she needed peace.
Having leaped the hurdles and jumped through all the hoops required by the Texas Department of Corrections for “Spiritual Advisor” visits, I made the two and half hour drive down I-45 in a little under 4 (Texas highways are most always under construction). Arriving at the prison, the guard towers overlooking the 11,247-acre compound known as the Ellis Unit grabbed my attention. Was a guard with a .30-06 putting me in the crosshairs? Probably not, but you will think about it. Having been searched at the guard shack (me and the thing I called a car) I drove through the gate, located an empty slot and parked. I had been in prayer mode all 171 miles of the journey but the thought of entering a maximum security prison being a bit chilling, one more prayer seemed appropriate before going in.
Twelve-foot ceilings connected to the floor by means of cinderblock walls painted a dismal looking battleship gray gave the building an appearance much older than its 25 years. Rusty pipes delivering hot water from the boiler room for heating cell blocks and areas where inmates were housed ran the length of the ceiling, water stained from apparent leaks at the joints. The ambiance was that of a medieval dungeon, although well lit, the feeling was dark and cold – had me thinking I should have chosen to wear a long-sleeved shirt in spite of the warm temperature floating somewhere around the 80-degree mark. I met first with the prison chaplain who gave me a quick what to expect education for the first time visiting minister and a rather less than optimistic appraisal of spiritual life in the penitentiary.
“Everyone gets Jesus in prison”, the man who looked like Robert De Niro with a Jimmy Durante’s nose said laughing. “When you leave today, you will see two trash cans just outside the gate”, he continued. “One for trash, the other a recycle bin for bibles. They all find Jesus inside these walls, most choose to leave him here on their way out”.
The noisy engine continued playing its worrisome song as I stepped down into the boat’s belly, far less unsettling than the one sang by the three prison doors locking behind me as I passed through them that day in Huntsville, though. Not a single tract on the floor, no bible laying around and none in the garbage. Not at all what I expected, they were held tightly in people’s hands, being read. One older man I would guess nearing 70 based on his white hair and wrinkled face, sat alone engrossed in the book. I stood there watching for five or ten minutes, he never looked up. It was the same story all over the boat, even the watchful woman who earlier sat like a guard on the post in a hostile environment protecting her plantains, her baby and her chicken was reading the bible unconcerned with me or anyone else.
Beneath the I-45 bridge in Dallas, the street people happily receive and make use of the food and clothing our church and other ministries distributed each week. Items made of paper (cups, plates, bibles and tracts), however, would be taken with a smile and a gracious thank you, then become kindling for the burn barrels located outside their tents and cardboard box houses minutes after the good Samaritans would pack up and drive away. The majority would stand patiently listening to a sermon, not so much in a sincere interest, but because it was their food ticket, the price for a slice of pepperoni pizza. A bible they could get just about any time at the downtown Gospel Mission or the Salvation Army shelter. Quite the opposite, a bible on a boat in the Amazon was treated a treasure to be read and absorbed, and from my vantage point, these people were sponges. For a minister of the gospel, it was like hitting the jackpot in Vegas witnessing this unearthly or better said, this unlike back home phenomenon – a people sincerely hungry for the Word of God, genuinely grateful to be owners of a bible, eyes glued to every line.
The day had been a long yet glorious chain of events – unforgettable. Following a dinner of boiled chicken, beans, and rice, a lot of inspiring conversation recapping the day gave way to heavy eyes – it was time to again tame the cloth tiger. I fell into the hammock that night an Oscar-Meyer wiener in a hot dog bun but that was okay, not the heat, not even that obnoxious engine would rob me of the joyous adrenaline my heart sent surging throughout my body bringing peace and needed rest. I prayed silently, “Thank you, Lord, for this amazing blessing, for all I have seen and witnessed today. Forgive me for having doubted you this morning, I will never do that again” – or so I thought. “Good night, Jesus.”