Stories of Faith from the Jungle

Stories of Faith from the Jungle

I just returned from the Amazon jungle where I taught at Justice & Mercy International’s Annual Jungle Pastors Conference. Ninety-four indigenous men and women gathered for a week of Bible teaching and renewal. Many traveled by boat and bus for several days to attend. This is my thirteenth year being a part of these conferences and I never return the same. I’ve been home for less than 48 hours, and while watching black howler monkeys swing from rainforest treetops while keeping an eye out for caiman seems a world away from my daily reality, the faith of these jungle pastors couldn’t be more relevant to my here and now. I have a feeling the same is true for you. If you could use a faith booster, read on.    

I sat with my dear friends Cosme and Auria who serve in a village that floods annually. When I asked them why they chose to live in a community that floods every year, Cosme simply said, “Because there are lives there.” In other words, they go where people need to hear about Jesus’s love, not where it’s easy. How often do I factor in ease ahead of what people need when making a ministry decision? In addition to the geographically challenging location of their village, Cosme suffered a stroke a few months ago and has an enlarged heart. When I asked how he continues to serve with such joy, he explained that trials bring us closer to the Lord. It was a simple concept to him really—when we face crises, we get to know Jesus more. We also find out what He’s capable of accomplishing on our behalf. Cosme and Auria’s joy and hope were infectious. You and I can have the fullness of joy in Christ that transcends the trials we’re walking through.

I visited with another pastor, Rildo (pronounced “Hildo”). He has a 29-year-old son who is non-verbal. As a result of his and his wife’s experience raising a child with special needs, he now has a ministry to countless special needs children in the Amazon. It’s staggering what he’s been able to accomplish with no income and a whole lot of God’s power. I wonder what God has taken you through personally and how He wants you to help and bless others as a result of what He’s done in your life? 

In addition to Rildo’s ministry to children, he also started a church in an indigenous tribe. For three years, Rildo prayed for an opening in this tribe. (I have given up on certain prayers in three days!) Eventually, this tribe invited him in because they saw the love he and his family had to offer. The chief and leaders of the tribe signed documents for Rildo to minister inside the tribal community—a rare occurrence in the Amazon. What might God accomplish in our lives, and in the lives of those we love, if we prayed persistently and confidently with a passion to see God’s will done on this earth? Whatever it is you’re praying for, Pastor Rildo reminds us—don’t give up! The Lord delights to answer us. Sometimes prayer is a process. 

I was further impacted by a couple whose names I will refrain from using to protect their identities. They minister in a village where incest and childhood sexual abuse are part of the culture. This couple is seeking to change the culture by bringing Jesus to this village. Already, their modest church building is at capacity. Each week they’re teaching over 40 children about Jesus and the Bible. They’re also teaching them about the sanctity of their bodies and how to protect themselves and ask for help if someone tries to take advantage of them. While abuse is illegal in this part of the Amazon, law enforcement does little to uphold the law, and abuse is rampant in families. This couple has received death threats because of the work they’re doing to protect children. Through tears, this pastor said, “I would rather be killed than let another little girl be abused.” After talking with them, I wondered what sacrifices I was making to bring Jesus to those around me.

It’s tempting to think that these stories are confined to the jungle, but I don’t think that’s true. Powerful stories of redemption aren’t confined to a place, rather they’re attached to a faith. When we take Jesus at His Word, when we deny ourselves and obey Him, we see Him do exciting things in our lives, but we also get to know Him more deeply. Pastor Cosme said that when he faced trials as a new believer, he would tell the Lord, “I don’t know you that much, but you know me that much.” In other words, he may not have known Jesus all that well at the time, but Jesus knew him inside and out. This encouraged Cosme to rest in the Lord’s will for His life and trust Him in the middle of trials. 

I don’t know how well you know the Lord, but He knows everything about you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Pray to Him. And watch Him do great and mighty things. 

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Casting Our Nets in 2024

Casting Our Nets in 2024

Happy New Year! I hope your year is off to a good start. Mine has been minorly shaky—I started the year with a bang-up sinus infection (my favorite involuntary sickness) and I had to throw away every single strand of Christmas lights due to a portion of each strand not lighting up. This is
discouraging since, after all, the only job a strand of lights has is to light up. I have decided the Christmas decorating companies are out to get us, programming each string of lights to last about half a season. They, of course, give us false hope with the spare bulbs per box which do not work
one-hundred percent of the time.

Have I wished you a Happy New Year yet?

One of the highlights for me in this early part of 2024 was seeing the familiar passage of Luke 5:1-11 with fresh eyes. I spoke briefly about it in an Instagram reel where I asked the question, are you willing for Jesus to reprioritize your 2024 plans? The video seemed to sparked some thought, so I thought I’d go deeper into it here. Before we get there, though, let me ask you: are your 2024 plans set in stone? Are your goals for the year fixed? Or are you available for Jesus to shuffle around your priorities?

Take a minute to read the following short account from Luke 5:1-11.

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.  2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4  When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 5  Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6  When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  7  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. 8  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  9  For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,  10  and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”  11  So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Like me, you may be quite familiar with this story having read it many times before. But something hit me that I’d never thought of prior. Peter and his friends were fishermen, meaning this was their business. They hadn’t stayed up all night fishing because they needed some time
away from their wives and kids to shoot the breeze on a breezy night out. They had been up all night because their livelihood depended on it. Fishing was their job.

When Jesus tells Peter to let down his nets in a certain spot in the middle of the day, Peter is hesitant because what does a rabbinical teacher know about fishing. Peter, on the other hand, knows that on the Sea of Galilee fish feed at night, and he has already tried to catch them and failed. But Peter responds and does what Jesus tells Him. When he and his friends set out into the deep and let down their nets, their nets began tearing at the astounding haul of fish. Here’s the part I’d never thought of before, the part that scholar Kenneth Bailey in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes so astutely brought out. You would think Peter would want to harness Jesus’s spectacular ability to know where the fish are. Think of the boom to his business! The windfall of sales at the fish market if Peter always knew where to catch them! Perhaps Peter wondered why Jesus wasn’t in business for Himself given His keen ability to harvest fortune out of a lake.

But Jesus’s priorities are different from Peter’s. “Peter faces a man who wins the ‘fishing lottery’ but doesn’t want it.” (1) ( And here is where this story affects you and me, where it affects our vision for 2024.

In the moment on the water Peter recognizes that Jesus is no mere teacher. It’s probably too early for Peter to understand Him to be the Son of God, or the Messiah, but Peter gets that Jesus is holy and he is not. Instead of chastising Peter for his lack of faith—or trying to talk Peter into a business partnership where Jesus spots the fish and Peter brings them in and they become Galilee Gazilionaires—Jesus changes Peter’s value system. Instead of prioritizing fish that are brought in to die, Peter will from here on out look for people to bring to life in Christ.

Yes, Jesus could aid Peter in the biggest, most profitable year of his career, but that wasn’t why Jesus came. And it wasn’t Peter’s highest calling. Nor is it ours.

Peter encountered Jesus in a space of earthy stuff like water, wood, nets, knives, and swimming things to show Peter the high value of eternal things. Things like souls. As we sit atop a new year, are you willing, if needed, for Jesus to bring some of your top priorities lower and your lower priorities to a place of prominence?

My prayer for you and me is that Jesus will meet us in our everyday spaces—like He did Peter—to show us what truly matters. That we might be reminded anew that He is not just teacher, but Lord. And that we are not just workers but disciples who serve at the pleasure of our Savior. What a year this stands to be if we will allow His priorities to become ours.

Happy New Year!

[1] Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies In The Gospels, page 146

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Christmas Encouragement from Mary & Elizabeth

Christmas Encouragement from Mary & Elizabeth

I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a blessed holiday season! As we’re marching straight toward this most anticipated holiday, I know there’s probably a lot of stress mixed in there with the excitement. Instead of bringing you a written devotional this month, I wanted to share a video of encouragement straight from the Gospel of Luke. I hope these tips from Mary and Elizabeth encourage you as you prepare for your Christmas, whatever it looks like. Overall, I just want to remind everyone to take a step back and remember what this season is truly about – the birth of Jesus! What a reason that is to celebrate!
 

Letting Go of Holiday Ideals for the Savior

Letting Go of Holiday Ideals for the Savior

The holiday season is upon us and so are all the impossible expectations. (Is this too Grinch-ish for the beginning of a devotional?) During this season our joys and sorrows are magnified. Not to mention, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s each bring with them a frenzy of activity, an assortment of relatives, and often complicated situations. This is not to dismiss the season’s sentimental qualities or potential for cherished memories to be made. But for most of us, the holidays are a mixed bag and it’s important to decide at the top how we’re going to approach them. We have a choice to either succumb to cultural expectations or determine to put our expectation and hope in Christ, no matter our circumstances.

This time of year, I like to revisit Elizabeth’s story in Luke 1. Elizabeth was too old to bear children and was barren on top of her age. Imagine her immeasurable joy when after years of what she would refer to as her “disgrace among the people,” the angel Gabriel announced that Elizabeth would soon become pregnant with a son. And while any son would have been a blessing, John the Baptist would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah would bring into the world one of the most important figures in Christendom.

At the peak of Elizabeth’s glory, a much younger and arguably less deserving woman stepped through the front door bearing a child greater than Elizabeth’s. Her name was Mary and was already pregnant with Jesus, the Christ. If Elizabeth had been given to comparisons and holiday ideals, her expectations would have been dashed before the first Christmas had even come. But Elizabeth wasn’t caught up in comparisons or jealousy.

Her focus was on Jesus and His presence with her: "How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43.), she exclaimed! Her words reveal a secret we desperately need this time of year: Elizabeth’s hope was not in an ideal but in a person, the person of Jesus.

Where are your hopes this holiday season? Are they in achieving the perfect Thanksgiving table or Christmas gathering? Are they in who will be at your house or at whose house you will be? Are your hopes rising and falling on your finances or health or job to pull off a “good Christmas?” These are all important questions and they matter deeply to the heart of Christ. You matter to Him, and He knows how much we all long to be with loved ones and have a joyful season of celebration. But, ultimately, our hope must be in Jesus.

He must be the longing of our hearts. I read this morning in Ephesians Paul’s prayer for us to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge so we can be filled with all the fullness of God. Both Mary and Elizabeth experienced the fulness of Christ’s love despite their circumstances. I am deciding today that Jesus will be my hope and focus this season. As a result, I am always a much more delightful person to be around—when I’m giving out of what He has given to me.

This season, let’s not mistake the holiday ideal for our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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What It Means To Be Blessed (Excerpt from “The Blessed Life”)

What It Means To Be Blessed (Excerpt from “The Blessed Life”)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”  Matthew 5:3 

Sometimes when I’m really out of sorts, my friends will remind  me of how truly blessed I am, how much I have to be thankful for. But  this always feels like an evasion to me, like they’re not giving my “pain  and suffering” its due. They’re looking for what is going well in my life,  doing the math, and then deciding I’ve got more going for me in the  blessed column than in the poor in spirit one, so blessed it is.  

I don’t know how the word blessed hit Jesus’s disciples on the hillside  that day or how it landed on the crowds, but I can’t imagine it was the  first word the sick, lame, shunned, or hungry expected to hear Him speak  to them that day. And Jesus wasn’t using the word to convince them that  the good things in their life outweighed the bad, that they were more  blessed than not. He was declaring those in His kingdom as wholesale  flourishing.  

Blessed. 

Think of that word hanging out there over a Jewish people hobbling  under Roman oppression. The ones who for centuries had been pining  for a powerful Messiah in the image of King David to knock their enemies  out of the land. Surely some had followed Jesus out of curiosity but  most out of pure desperation. Some were longing for a new leader who  could help them figure out how to get back on the God of Israel’s good  side, someone with a solid campaign slogan. Some may have showed up hoping to hear a strategic and gutsy military plan: Who’s ready to  defeat Rome once and for all? Strap on your swords! Others may have been  looking for something more personal and close to home, like a much  needed healing or handout. 

Blessed. 

The word itself is not an unusual opener. It’s only shocking when  you think about whom He addressed it to: the poor in spirit, mourners,  stomped on, hungry, innocent, persecuted. Well, now, this just feels like  madness. How can the poor in spirit be the blessed ones? In what kind of  a world, in what kind of a kingdom, in what kind of a religion, has this  ever been so? 

Before we consider an answer, it is worth asking, Why are you here?  Why have you come to listen to the words of Jesus? 

Are you looking for Him to overpower someone who has wounded  you? Is a family member sick and in need of healing? Are finances tight?  Is work unfulfilling? Is your marriage suffering? Are you simply tired of  the grind, like the average Jewish peasant in first-century Galilee looking  for a sustaining word of encouragement, a change in the political land 

scape? Perhaps you’re not looking for anything from Him as much as you  simply want to be with Him and listen to what He has to say.  Note that the “them” Jesus begins to teach in verse 2 appear to  be His disciples. But at the end of His message, it was the crowds who  were astonished at His teaching (Matt. 7:28). We should establish at the  outset that both disciples and undecideds are invited to listen. Whichever  you are, I’m glad you’re here. 

But back to our question. How can people like the poor in spirit be  blessed? In the original language, the word for “blessed” is makarios,  and it means “prospering, fortunate, flourishing,” and in some cases,  “downright happy.” (This is different from the word used when someone  pronounces a blessing on another, translated eulogeo). Makarios is a  description of the state of a person who is thriving in the kingdom of  God. So Jesus isn’t saying that the poor in spirit will eventually gain a  blessing. He is saying that their current state of being is a prosperous  one because God’s kingdom is theirs. In fact, in every case of the nine  Beatitudes, a difficult state of being is paired with a promise of blessing. 

So if you’re struggling or hurting today, may Jesus redefine your  circumstances as only He can. If you find yourself poor in spirit, malnourished by the “blessings” of our culture, you’re in prime position to  experience the blessed life of the kingdom. 

Ask Him to teach you and show you what it means to flourish in  whatever your circumstances. Look for Him to answer you as you go  about Your day. He is eager to meet you in it.

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