“preach the word; be ready in season and out of season. . .” ~ 2 Timothy 4:2
It’s Wednesday morning now, I think. Already having lost track of time back in Iquitos, what the hands on the clock may have read at the moment wouldn’t matter much anyhow. No one seemed to care what day it was, it was just a day like all others. Sun comes up, sun goes down, a redundant and monotonous cycle meaning only, “Do what needs to be done while you can see what you need to do”. Although you won’t hear it said quite that way, it is indeed befitting of jungle dwellers – a motto they all should adopt. When the sun goes down in the rain forest you can’t see anything, you won’t be able to find the latrine nor the path leading to it. You won’t even be able to find yourself – pack a flashlight and lots of batteries. As a side note, feed the Energizer Bunny well, don’t trust off brands. Lay out a few extra bucks for the name brand batteries like Energizer and Duracell and you might not get caught alone in the dark wondering not who, but what may be there with you.
Our adventure having only begun, we were still river miles away from Pandora. The morning sun began dancing over the waters bouncing rays like a Ping-Pong ball into my wanting to stay shut eyes. The suns resolve to rise, however, being more powerful than the determination of my sleepy eyes to remain closed, it was the Sun 1 – Pat 0. I mentally cursed the noisy engine for being the thief in the night sleep robber it was when all at once the reality of where I was dawned – snug as a bug in a rug, but – in a hammock.
Hammock: a 7.5’X4.5′ single-minded, demon possessed piece of stretchable cloth having multiple strands of rope attached to both ends and suspended horizontally between two points (usually posts or trees); used for chilling, siestas, sleeping and falling out of to sustain bumps, bruises, and foul language ordinarily not associated with missionaries and members of the clergy.
The video processor in my head running an instant replay of yesterday’s Pat vs the Hammock show brought up an embarrassing vision of everybody getting another belly-busting laugh at my expense. Lucky for me, though, I was able to avoid the same rookie mistakes and come off looking the pro landing directly on my feet first try. “I beat you, you moth-ridden hanging devil from hell, chalk me up a big ‘W’, put it up on the big screen by my name”. Whistling a victory tune my bare feet hit the floor and went staggering off to the bathroom, fortunately, taking my body with them – it had been a long night.
A greater distance had grown between banks over the past six or seven hours. Ever widening, it seemed, we were somewhere in the river’s throat. Exactly where that was, I didn’t have a clue. Civilization becoming more and more a thing in the past, or so it seemed, reality began setting into my pea-sized brain; “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and this isn’t Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is the river on which you are afloat, and Emerald City is a primitive jungle village you might make it too if that clanking engine responsible for your restless night holds up. If not ask yourself, ‘what would Tarzan do’?”
Anticipating another sultry day brought to mind a twisted version of the Rich Man and Lazarus story found in Luke 16. Physically unable to go dumpster diving, you might say, Lazarus is a poor beggar whose body, ridden with sores, is laid each day at the gate of a Rich Man’s house begging to eat just the scraps that would fall to the floor from the overflowing buffet lavishing his table. For Lazarus, a pig’s diet would be a tasty and much-appreciated meal, but the rich man was without a single bone of pity in his plump body. Looking the other way turning a deaf ear to Lazarus’ cries, he goes his merry way ignoring the despicable looking beggar leaving his care to whatever stray dog might happen by to lick the lesions and abscesses riddling his diseased body.
One day both men die; Lazarus catches a flight to heaven, the rich man is shuttled off to hell. In torment, the rich man looks up to see Lazarus and father Abraham lounging at poolside with a glass of sweet iced tea and a wedge of lemon in hand. The rich man begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to dip his finger in the glass and come dab his parched tongue with the refreshing wetness that he might have but a millisecond’s relief from his suffering.
That’s something like the way I was beginning to feel as the sun turned up the burners. Anything at all with a cube or two of ice would have been a real treat. But it didn’t happen for the rich man, and it wouldn’t be happening for me. No doubt hell is much hotter than the hottest hour on the Amazon, but a few days afloat along the equator will sure make you wonder about it.
Inching slowly in a southerly direction (and I do mean “slowly”), the engine was still pleading for a bath of Penzoil as we came to a stop dropping off a few passengers who scampered up the bank to a greeting party quite anxious for their arrival. Were the children who stood atop laughing and leaping doing so in play? Were their spirited antics in delight to have their dads back home, or was it something else? A piece of hard candy, maybe? Medicine?
This was the Village of San Paulos, it was quite large as villages along the Amazon go and the last one we would see for another day and a half. A motorbike carriage like the ones that zipped through the streets of Iquitos ran along a lone dirt road kicking up clouds of dust as it sped out of sight, swallowed by the jungle. Like a rickshaw pulled by a motorcycle instead of a man afoot, these odd looking contraptions were operated by the cabbies of Iquitos. More like an amusement park ride than a taxi service, however; unknowing and unsuspecting tourists, such as myself (the day I took the plunge), would be rocketed through heavy traffic by drivers playing chicken with oncoming vehicles and dodging pedestrians. Quick stops, fast starts, and ninety degree turns at a rate of speed lifting a tire off the ground would together make for a wet your britches experience you were glad to have survived escaping with your life – but admittedly, it was a wind in your face blast.
After 15 minutes or so, we took on a couple of new passengers, a man, and a goat, and were moving again.
The fresh scent of animal manure wafted in the morning air as we sat at breakfast. Not being a pig farmer, I didn’t find the aroma to go well with scrambled eggs and Jimmy Dean pork sausage, but we survived the unpleasant air quality and left the table with full bellies. Each day switching between Spurgeon’s, “Morning and Evening”, and Oswald Chambers’, “My Utmost For His Highest”, we had our usual devotional reading followed by a time of prayer. Being there as missionaries, Howard and Helen suggested we map out our day (not that we were on a tight schedule working against the clock) and be missionaries doing what missionaries do. Suggested and approved by majority vote (drawing straws actually), it was decided that one of us would preach to the native passengers this morning and another in the afternoon – you’d never guess which of us the lot fell on to be first at bat would you? My request for a recount was rejected as was my frivolous attempt to weasel out of it. The vote was in and tallied, “Hey, Pat, tag – you’re it”.
The fork moving from the scrambled eggs to my mouth, I contemplated my options finding two, 1) preach, and 2) preach. Given thoughtful consideration, I chose both. After the others had left the table I retrieved my Thompson Chain Reference Bible, King James Version, from my army green duffle bag sat down and began thumbing aimlessly through the onion skin sheets hoping something would jump from the pages like a Jack-in-the-Box to grab my attention for a sermon text – nothing. I bowed my head, whispered a quick prayer and looked again – still nothing. It just wasn’t working out for me. One of the guys sensing my frustration asked, “do you want to pray about it? – Already have”, I said. “Do you want to pray again? – I did that too”, I told him. “Do you want to go for a triple?” he said with a chuckle – we both laughed. Turning to leave he placed a common laborers calloused hand on my shoulder and reminded me, “chill buddy, God’s got this”. “Perhaps he should preach then”, I fired back. We laughed again then he went about with his to-do list leaving me to mine.
It may help to understand I was a pulpit preacher, sermonizing by the book. A faithful adherent to the guidelines established by First Baptist Dallas pastor, Dr. W.A. Criswell in his classic work, “Criswell’s Guidebook For Pastors”, the sermons I brought were prepared well in advance of Sunday morning, scripted and shadow boxed before standing behind the sacred desk – reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance was in the preparation phase, not the delivery.
Always certain to look the part, my bible would be in hand as I stepped up on the platform even though I really wouldn’t need it. Scripture text and quotations were bold typed in the five or six pages of notes I had placed on the podium before services began and those are the ones I would be reading from. However, it was important for the congregation to see me open and set my bible atop the pulpit else in their minds, “you’re not preaching the word of God – you’re just making a speech”; and without holding the bible up over your head every once in a while, shaking it a little, the fire wasn’t going to come down and the sermon would be powerless, bearing no fruit for the kingdom, Dr. Criswell said so (okay, that’s stretching his words a bit).
Honestly, I could have used a Xanax walking up to the stack of crates my colleagues had put together for a makeshift pulpit to place the good book on, and to make the situation a little nervier, I would be speaking with an interpreter – I had not done that before. I had heard others do it, but me, oh no, not me, “can I just get a rain check.”
One of our team members had already kicked off our Church on the Water morning service with a few songs that drew a rather large number of people from their cubbyholes to see what was going on at the boats bow. He played his guitar and sang (in Spanish) with a holy passion that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, it was truly beautiful. I couldn’t understand a single word coming from his lips but the tune I knew well, I sang along.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name;
Master, savior, Jesus, like the fragrance after the rain.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, let all heaven and earth proclaim;
Kings and kingdoms, will all pass away,
But there’s something about that name.”
When introduced, my wobbling legs moved towards the crude pulpit, trembling hands opened the bible to Romans 5:8 and in what had to be a noticeable quiver in my voice I began to read:
“But – God – commend-eth his — love – toward us, — in that, while we were – yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
There must have been 30 or so curious onlookers spersed across the bow of the boat and our entire group stood supportively close by. Even so, I felt alone; “Where are you, God? You put me here, do something”. Asking one of our team to lead in an opening prayer, I called for everyone to bow their heads, I did the same. As he prayed aloud, beneath my breath this frightened shell of a man cried out to God for help. I had not an ounce of confidence in myself that moment, and what I needed, right then – right there, was God to wake up from sleep and speak to the tempest in my soul as he did once before on the Sea of Galilee when his disciples were caught out on the water in a raging wind storm (Mark 4). “Say it again, Lord, please, say those three words once more – ‘Peace, be still’”.
What happened next, whatever words I spoke following the “amen”, I truly don’t remember. What I do remember, however, what I will never forget, are the tears streaming down the faces of the 14 natives who stepped forward answering the call to follow Jesus. Did a call even go out? Obviously so. Did I give an invitation? I guess I did. Truth is, I don’t know what I did, I don’t know how long I did whatever it was I did, I don’t know what I said, or if I had said anything at all. After tagging the opening prayer with a sheepish “amen” a Lion showed up – the Lion of the tribe of Judah; Pat had checked out, the Holy Spirit checked in. Come to pass for me that day were the words of 2 Samuel 23:2,“The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.”
We stood receiving those coming forward praying with each one. The unexpected number of people responding sent our interpreter into a tailspin, yet she was somehow able to keep up. Our entire team a sobbing mess handed out gospel tracks and placed bibles in the hands of any and all who would take one. It was a sight I had not seen in a very-very long time back home in Texas.
“Jesus”, I said to myself, “Is this why I am here? Patience my son”, a tender voice whispered, “be patient – we’ll talk later.”