The Shepherd

A two-hour drive through the mountainous countryside brought us to Huehuetenango so John Batchelor could preach at the surprise 50th birthday service for Pastor Isai Martinez at Palabra de Vida (Word of Life). We passed through swarms of buses, motos, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians, each going their own way – right through everyone else’s own way.

 Dump sites on the sides of the road became gold mines for people searching for anything they could sell. To my left, flocks of sheep wandered about in front of terra cotta cottages; to my right, three men filing up the mountain path, shovels over their shoulders, glad to be finished with the day’s farming. And all around, loads of laundry hanging next to tiendas painted with Partido Lider election propaganda, villagers waiting on the bus to go into town, men carrying heavy loads of firewood or whatever else would fit on their backs to sell in the market.

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11667289_10100781900332688_4936303971849705035_nIt was dusk when we left the Hotel California for the church. All around us twinkled fireflies of lights on the Sierras de los Chucumatanes, the highest mountain range in all of Central America. They reminded me of El Paso, Texas at night, these formidable majesties lording over the Maya people below, sentinels of the valley who have guarded its secrets and echoed its shouts for thousands of years.

                                                                             The Chucumatanes in daylight

Just past these mountains? Chiapas, Mexico, land of rainforests…and war. But in this place, a city on a hill, a beacon of hope.

Isai’s birthday service was a Polaroid glimpse into the life of a healthy church. The way he and his wife, Bris, loved on everyone there and the way that love was reciprocated was just how I imagine the early Church would have been. Afterwards, we sat and ate tamales and cake while Isai told us his story.

Pastor Isai, left
            Pastor Isai, left, and John Batchelor, right

Isai was a math teacher for 20 years before becoming a pastor. He became a teacher because he had had a terrible math teacher in school, and he wanted to do things differently. He wanted to be the teacher who captivated his students, showed them new ways to learn complex concepts, and directed them toward Christ. After 20 years of teaching, he became the youngest to retire from his school, and he entered pastoral ministry full-time. Now, he translates skills he mastered from teaching to sharing God’s Word in ways the people can understand. A part of his legacy now is that a number of his former students are active members in his church and ardent lovers of Jesus.

That night, deep in the heart of the Chucumatanes, firefly beacons and the heart of the Maya still beating all around us, we saw a lamb with a lion’s heart whose life’s desire to see others meet Jesus has left a line of many other sheep who now follow their true Pastor, or Shepherd. All because one man heard His voice and said, “Yes”.

The Water

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

And so it was at the end of October 1998. Hurricane Mitch stormed in with a vengeance, wrecking the nation of Honduras and leaving over 6,000 dead, over 9,000 unaccounted for, and over 300,000 displaced. There was water everywhere, flooding streets and homes and hearts with sorrow. To this day, I’ll never forget being one of an entire nation watching footage of a journalist trapped in a building, surrounded by raging floods, begging and signaling with a flashlight for help, only to be overtaken by the undrinkable waters of destruction. He was one of many whose lives were snuffed out by the unquenchable floods.

I still remember going to Maria Jose’s home to help dig out whatever belongings of hers we could after the Rio Choluteca rose within 18 inches of her ceiling, receded, and left three feet of mud behind as a thank you. We walked in mud so thick even grown men couldn’t keep their balance, mud so vile the snakes felt at home, mud so concealing the authorities struggled in their search for cadavers all around us. I stood in Maria Jose’s room, digging out teddy bears and furniture, thanking God my home was safe and wrestling with Him as I struggled to find a reason why hers was not.

Yet still, we kept digging. We kept searching. We kept hoping. Because when you’re surrounded by death, sometimes LIFE compels you to dig through the mud and wade through the flood to find a piece of home, to find a piece of normalcy from the time before the flood waters burst in without knocking and left disaster in their wake.

It was because of water that we met Josue. He lived near the top of one of the already saturated mountains that caved from the weight of the rains that drenched the nation. I still see him there in my mind’s eye, straddling his bike on the edge of the fallen mountain, just two feet from the front door to the one-room white house he called his home. We stopped and talked awhile, hearing his story and bringing him clean water to drink and beans to eat, feeling helpless all the while, not knowing how to help him more.

You might say he was one of the lucky ones. He was alive. Hundreds had died in the collapse of that very mountain, yet that collapse stopped just before his front door. And he was still smiling and laughing as he talked to us, despite how close to home everything had come. I marveled at his bravery and balance there on a flimsy bike on a flimsy threshold, stretching my flimsy faith. I guess when you’ve seen entire mountains collapse before your eyes, a little standing near the edge can’t scare you. That house, that bike, that tiny little threshold – and yes, even the fallen pieces below – they all belonged to him and were part of his story, and he was still around to tell it.

We hear much about courage, of bravery and going for it and living dangerously. So we write mottos and get tattoos and post to Facebook about ways we’re being brave and working through our messes and living on the edge…then life hits us. Hard. And suddenly that bravery seems more like foolishness when compared to the muck and mountains of our lives. We wrestle with God and still, even after He gives us our limp, wander in the desert, thirsty, depleted, seeking home.

But what if it’s time we start digging? What if there’s something hidden in that muck that He means us to find to remind us of Home, of His heart for us in the wake of the storm? What if what looks like a collapsed mountain is really just Him blazing a new path for us, clearing away obstacles we mistook for gifts, and daring us to ride anyway, to reconcile it all anyway, to tell our story anyway? What if He wants us to remember that mountains can shake and crumble into the waters that might rise and destroy everything we know, but He will always be our home? What if the waters that were meant for evil actually bring us to our knees and to the Living Water who will quench our thirst and bring us back to life again?

Whatever this means for you, start here. Start today. Start now. Start moving forward, a step at a time or a leap at a time. Even if it’s messy. Even if it’s scary or feels like you’re constantly near the edge, constantly about to fall. Start digging up those things that were buried. Drink of the water that never runs dry, and thirst no more.

And LIVE again.

En español: El Agua

Agua, agua por doquier, y ni una gota para tomar.

Así fue al final de octubre en el año 1998. El huracán Mitch llegó lleno de venganza, derrumbando la nación de Honduras y dejando más que 6.000 muertos, más que 9.000 perdidos, y más que 300.000 sin hogar. Había agua, agua en todas partes, inundando calles y hogares y corazones con tristeza. Hasta este día recuerdo el día cuando el periodista capitalino murió después de haber estado atrapado en su casa, rogando con palabras y destellos de la luz de su foco, pidiendo auxilio, desesperado por su vida. Fue uno de miles de los que perdieron sus vidas por la destrucción de las aguas insaciables.

Todavía recuerdo el día cuando nos fuimos a la casa de María José para ayudarla con sus esfuerzos para sacar cualquier cosa posible de su casa después de que el Río Choluteca se elevó a medio metro de llegar a su techo, bajó, y dejó casi un metro de lodo en la casa como regalo de gracias. Caminamos en lodo tan denso que aún los hombres fuertes perdieron su equilibrio, lodo tan vil que las serpientes se sentían en casa, lodo tan tupido que las autoridades tuvieron que luchar en su búsqueda de cadáveres alrededor. Yo estuve parada en el dormitorio de María José, excavando sus ositos de peluche y muebles, dándole gracias a Dios porque mi casa estaba bien, al mismo tiempo luchando con él porque no entendía la razón para que su casa había sido destruida.

Aun así, seguimos excavando. Seguimos buscando. Seguimos manteniendo la esperanza. Porque cuando estás rodeado con la muerte, a veces la VIDA te empuja a seguir excavando en el lodo y seguir caminando en la inundación para hallar un pedacito del hogar, para encontrar un fragmento de la normalidad del tiempo antes de cuando las aguas invadieron sin tocar la puerta y dejaron desastre al salir.

Fue por causa del agua que nosotros conocimos a Josué. Él vivía cerca de la cumbre de una de las montañas ya empapadas que se derrumbaron por el peso de las aguas que saturaron la nación. Puedo verlo ahora en mi mente, sentado a horcajadas sobre su bicicleta al extremo del monte caído, ni siquiera a 50 centímetros de la puerta de la casita blanca que fue su hogar. Nosotros nos paramos para hablarle un rato, escuchando su historia y trayéndole agua para tomar y frijoles para comer, sintiendo mi incapacidad, deseado saber cómo poder ayudarlo más.

Se puede decir tal vez que Josué era uno de los suertudos. Estaba vivo. Cienes habían muerto en la caída de esa montaña, pero la caída se detuvo justamente en frente de su puerta. Y aun así sonreía y se reía mientras nos hablaba, a pesar de estar tan cerca de la destrucción. Me maravillé de su valor y equilibrio allí en ésa bicicleta ligera en un umbral ligero, probando mi fe endeble. Me parece que cuando has visto montañas enteras caer ante tus ojos, el acto de parar cerca del precipicio no te da miedo. Aquella casa, aquella bicicleta, aquel umbral – y sí, aún los pedazos caídos por debajo – todos le pertenecían a él, eran parte de su historia, y él todavía estaba allí para contarla.

Escuchamos mucho sobre el coraje, sobre el valor y dándole ganas y viviendo peligrosamente. Escribimos lemas, conseguimos tatuaje, compartimos en Facebook las maneras en que hemos sido valientes, trabajando dentro de nuestros relajos y viviendo cerca del precipicio de nuestras vidas…Y la vida nos da un golpe bajo. Fuerte. Y de repente, aquel valor nos parece más como necedad comparado al caos y las montañas de nuestras vidas. Batallamos con Dios y aun así, después de habernos dejado cojos, vagamos en el desierto con sed, perdidos, agotados, buscando nuestro hogar.

Pero ¿qué tal si es tiempo de cavar? ¿Qué tal si hay algo escondido en el lodo algo que Dios quiere que encontramos para recordarnos de nuestro Hogar y de Su amor por nosotros después de la tormenta? ¿Qué tal si lo que se parece un monte derrumbado es en realidad nuestro Dios creando un nuevo camino para nosotros, sacando los obstáculos que en nuestro error pensamos que eran regalos, y echándonos las porras que necesitamos para montar nuestra bicicleta de todos modos, para reconciliar lo malo de todos modos, para contar nuestras historias de todos modos? ¿Qué tal si Él quiere que recordamos que las montañas se pueden temblar y caerse en las aguas que tal vez se eleven para destruir todo lo que conocemos, pero Él siempre será nuestro hogar? ¿Qué tal si las aguas que el enemigo pensó por nuestro mal hacen lo reverso y nos traen a nuestras rodillas y al Agua Viva quien saciará nuestra sed y nos traerá de nuevo a la vida?

Lo que sea que todo esto significa para ti, empieza aquí. Empieza hoy. Empieza ahora. Empieza a mover adelante, un paso a la vez o un salto a la vez. Aún si es un desorden. Aún si te da miedo o si sientes como que estás siempre cerca del precipicio, siempre a punto de caer. Empieza a excavar para las cosas enterradas. Bebe del agua que nunca se acabará, y ya no tengas sed.

Y VIVE otra vez.

In the Small Things

It’s my favorite part of the evening, God. The lights are dimmed, the busyness over, and the only sounds I hear are the London clock ticking and the maniacs’ cars screeching outside. Okay, so maybe it isn’t as serene as I’d like it to be all the time, but it works for us, God, doesn’t it?

You know, it’s taken me 30 years to even scratch the surface of understanding this one thing, but I’m glad You bear with me while I fumble my way through this story You’re writing. You didn’t call me to one. huge. thing. You didn’t call me to that climactic event in my life that would be the ultimate purpose for the breath I take in each day. You didn’t call me to one powerful, exciting, earthshaking moment or day or year that would be the culmination of everything else about my life.

You called me to the small things, the everyday things, the seemingly insignificant things. You called me to the rote, the repetetive, the redundant. You called me to the day in, day out, seemingly menial acts of faithfulness and surrender and intentional hope and knees-in-the-dirt love in the everyday tasks You’ve set before me. You’ve called me not only to be trustworthy with those things; You’ve called me to find joy in those things.

Because brick by brick, a house is built. Word by word, a story is written. Breath by breath, a life is lived. And faithful act by faithful act, Your Kingdom is increased.

You didn’t call me to shake the nations. You called me to set my heart towards You. Because I am Your story, and You are the author, and You are the beginning and the end. You held my omega before Your quill had even dipped into the ink of Your Son’s precious blood to write the first word of the alpha of my redemption story. Because I am Yours.

Because I am not my own, but I am loved. And because I am not my own, my every moment, every breath, every heartbeat belongs to You. Every daily act of faithfulness is another brick in Your Kingdom. My life is but one stroke of the brush You’re using to create the masterpiece You and I will look upon at the end of time.

May it be said of me that I was a willing, open book, begging You to craft something out of me. May it be said that I found joy in the small things, the hard things, the incomprehensible things, the mundane things. May it be said that I found freedom in surrender, in service, in sacrifice.

Monday’s coming, Lord. My teacher heart feels it early Saturday morning, and my brain begins early to try to figure out the next steps, the next plan, the next idea. But tonight, in this not-so-quiet of only the clock ticking and the maniac racing, with yesterday’s small acts of both failure and faithfulness behind me and tomorrow’s ahead, let me rest in this moment. As I mark today off on the calendar, help me see each drop in the bucket as part of a wave.

Remind me of the minutes that add up to hours that add up to days that add up to weeks that add up to years that add up to the life You’ve given me that is neither deserved nor guaranteed. Help me see You in the small things so that I can do the small things that add up to the big things.

And tomorrow, when I forget this lesson (and You know I will), when I get stuck again with looking for the one. huge. thing, will You remind me again?

1 Corinthians 15:58 - Verse of the Day Art

Day 7: In Division, Emmanuel

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6)

This will be the first year that Christmas will not be celebrated in Mosul, Iraq, near the ancient city of Ninevah. For nearly 2,000 years, Mosul had a thriving community of Christians who dwelt peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbors. Division was rare. They all lived in harmony and peace for nearly 2 millennia.

Then came ISIS. In July of 2014, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: Deny your God or be destroyed.

There are no longer any Christians in Mosul. There are no longer any churches in Mosul. Deep pits all over Iraq are now full of Christians’ bodies, a holocaust in its own right.

And all throughout the Middle East, the cry for peace echoes. In Syria, more than half the population has been displaced by a war that began only a few years ago. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, and all throughout the world the stories all carry the same tune of persecuted people calling for Emmanuel to come.

Much of the world fights for territory, for power, for survival. In America, we fight for ideals, for the right to be right, for the chance to be first. Even our churches are divided, with congregations on one end of the street condemning the ones at the other end.

Division makes its mark on every corner of the world, and even our best attempts at locking arms and singing “We are the World” will never bring true unity again. Only the King – only Emmanuel – can bind the hearts of all mankind. Only He can bring Heaven to Earth.

As we celebrate this day, let’s remember those around the world who are suffering for the very name we speak when we utter the phrase, “Merry Christmas”. Let’s join our hearts with theirs in prayer for peace, for Emmanuel to be with them…to be with us. Let’s pray for unity in our country’s corner of the Body of Christ. Let’s make room for the King of Peace in our homes, our churches, our communities. Let’s be vessels for Emmanuel to walk through, to move through, to speak through. Let’s be the light that brings Emmanuel to the ones who need it most.

Day 6: In the Shadows, Emmanuel

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end. In Day 4, He was the King who reclaimed us from the curse of death. In Day 5, He was the key to the door and the Door itself.)

The world labored and groaned with the weight of its sin, aching for a deliverer as the Israelites did in Egypt centuries before. We could only take so much more before we would surely die. We waited, pained and pining, wandering and wasting away in the shadow of death, wrestling our demons in the dark, clamoring for light, for an Emmanuel to pierce the darkness and bring us peace. And true to His word, though not in our own way, He came.

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:77-79)

He came to deliver, to lead the way, to enable us to walk with His presence enveloping us, to rescue us from the curse of death, to open the door so we could walk into the freedom of His light. He still comes; He still hears our cries. He’s still Emmanuel when we whisper our desperate, monosyllabic prayers in the darkness when no one else is around to hear – He comes to dwell with us in our shadows and carry us through until the dayspring rises in the morning to give us light. He dwells with us and whispers back, “It isn’t real; it’s only a shadow. The light will soon be here.”

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Last Battle, put it this way:

“There was  a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead.  The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.” —HarperCollins: New York, 1956

He comes in our shadows and calls us into the real story – the better story – so we can walk in the morning of His light and love. And the story He writes is better than any story any man could pen; it is written on our minds and hearts for all of time and for all of eternity.

Today, as we await the Big Day, wandering in the shadows and carrying our candles lit by hope, let us rejoice. Emmanuel has come. Emmanuel is here. Emmanuel will soon put to flight every shadow that surrounds us. Emmanuel hears and will respond. The dream has ended; this is the morning.

Day 5: When You Need a Door, Emmanuel

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end. In Day 4, He was the King who reclaimed us from the curse of death.)

Before Jesus, the door to the presence of God was locked. We were all relegated to the outer courts; only “authorized personnel” (read: the high priest) could enter into the Holy of Holies where God showed Himself to man. In the echo of His death, Jesus, the High Priest of all high priests, tore in two the veil that separated man from God’s presence. In the glory of His resurrection, He brought back the key and shut the door on death for all who’d choose to live and die for Him.

“The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22) 

He didn’t just open the door. He is the door.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

He lights the way in the dark, answering our cries for deliverance. He makes a safe path around winding roads of righteousness. He brings His presence near us, even when our frustration and doubt cause us to turn to other less-wild lovers. He brings dead things to life again, redeeming us and etching His name upon the roots of our hearts.  And this Key of David made a way for fallible humanity to intersect with incomparable divinity by becoming the Son of Man so that we could become sons of God. He opened the door – He IS the door – that no man can shut.

All so that we could be with Him. All so that Emmanuel could be with us.

Day 4: When Death Seems Like the End, Emmanuel

(In Day 1, He was the light of deliverance’s promise flickering in the darkness. In Day 2, He was the Shepherd leading the way around winding paths. In Day 3, He was the God who chose to dwell with us to the journey’s end.)

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

He sat on the throne of King David of Judah, son of Jesse, friend of God, future ancestor of Jesus. From that seat, he forsook the Lord and ignored His voice. And God declared Jehoiakim the last of a line of kings in Judah. Cursed would be the seeds that fell from his tree.

Then came Joseph, the last in the family line, centuries after the curse on his lineage. Joseph, who by virtue of his bloodline could have inherited the throne, but who by virtue of God’s plan became a humble carpenter in Nazareth, a city scorned by all who passed by. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” they’d say.

And Joseph’s fiancee, a young girl likely just past her bat mitzvah, already pregnant by the hand of God. He could have scorned her, could have had her stoned, but this carpenter from a line of kings chose to believe the promise of God.

Together, they journeyed to Bethlehem, home of David’s ancient throne, traveling hundreds of miles to claim their lineage in Caesar’s census. Back to their roots. Back to their beginning. And in this place of their beginning came a new beginning for all who were to come. In this place where Jesse’s seed took root, a tree would grow, and from that tree, a Branch – a rod – that would conquer death and gather the Shepherd’s lost sheep to come Home.

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

But seeds with any potential of growth must die before they can live. This seed that would bring life to all was born to die. And He didn’t come with a trumpet’s reverie; he didn’t come with a parade. He was born in a cave with farm animals around Him because no one had made room for the King of all kings, son of David, son of man, son of God to be born.

He was born in a cave, was raised by a carpenter, and died on a tree. And blessed would be tree from which fell the seed that grew into a tree that the King would carry to be raised up for all to see. Blessed would be the tree that would bear the weight of the King who would bear the weight of the sins of the world and would finish it all, once and for all.

The Rod of Jesse was buried in a cave for three days, and all hope seemed lost. Death seemed like the end. But the Rod of Jesse had to die to deal with the root of the sin that cursed the seeds that fell from the tree of David. On that third day, from the depths of death, He arose with the key that would open the door to the presence of God and set us all free. The world, weary from the weight of sin, would now have cause to rejoice.

God With Us, even in death, brought life. Even in death, He lived. And having redeemed us all from the curse of the law and death, he arose to take His seat on the throne at the right hand of God, grafting a place for all of us in the tree of life, etching our names upon the roots of His heart. This God who is with us has invited us to be with Him.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come, and Emmanuel says, “Come.” What will be your reply?