Thursday, April 29, 2010

Day Three - Evening Worship and a New Baptist Church...

Wednesday in the jungles of Ecuador was a full day in need of more attention. I mentioned yesterday that part of Wednesday was set aside for celebration. The purpose was to celebrate the chartering of the very first Baptist church on Huaorani land. The church we had painted the previous day and worked to build a storage room on the back was to become an official Baptist church that night.

The “Iglesia Cristiana Bautista” was a product of the combined efforts of a truly blessed evangelistic team in Ecuador. Southern Baptist missionary Steve Thompson partnered with an Ecuadorian missionary years ago to take the Gospel into the Indian nations. They were the first to reach out to the Kakatarro Indians and share Christ with them. As a result, many have come to Christ and have been baptized and discipled as believers. The church was only a building with no official start date or charter members. That would change that evening after an afternoon of celebration.

The celebration events were to be held on a large area adjacent to the camp where there was a soccer field and volleyball net. The Huaorani school teacher was not from this particular village and was placed there by the government to provide the most basic of skills to the children. As a young man in his mid-twenties, he had lived in the city where he received his education – he was also quite an athlete. When he found out that we would be competing he changed into his uniform, cleats and all and prepared to take on us Gringos. It was about then that I fully realized we were in trouble. Not withstanding the fact that every single Indian in the camp could eclipse all of the missionary team in a footrace, they could easily out maneuver us on the soccer field. Not only that, but most of us were still trying to recover from the hike into the jungle and we didn’t want to do anything that would cause more pain on the hike out on Thursday. So, most of the “celebrating” was left to only a couple in our group. As for me, and several others, we celebrated the river for an hour or so while they sweated on the soccer field. I personally liked that particular arrangement.

That evening we gathered at the church for the commissioning service. It was dark and the candles were lit. Pastor Timothy requested we gather in a large circle like their elders of years gone by for the teaching time that night. I was more than willing to teach while sitting in the circle and we all took our places and the worship service began.

First we sang songs in Quichua and Huaorani, Spanish and English. (Earlier we had sung Jesus Loves Me in all four languages at once – beautiful!) I then shared on the necessity of the Huaorani’s continuing to evangelize other Huaorani tribes deeper in the jungle. I gave them the scriptural mandates of why this was important and emphasized that these people would not hear the Gospel from an Anglo but would receive it from them. I pray that they are more responsive to evangelism than the average North American church member.

Upon my completion Pastor Timothy said that his people would dance like their ancient elders. He then called for several men and women to gather in the middle of the circle and they performed a shuffling movement as they raised their hands to God. Steve Thompson interpreted that they were giving praise to God the Father. This gave evidence of their animistic heritage where they recognized a divine creator but did not know God through Jesus, His Son. I think this was probably for our entertainment more than anything else, but it was a privilege to witness their culture and history up close. After a couple of these dances we moved into the official commissioning service.

Upon gathering all of the baptized believers in the middle of the circle – there were some 15 to 20 – both missionaries and my missions pastor, Jason Johnson, and myself were asked to pray a prayer of dedication for the new church. While we prayed the believers kneeled in the middle of the circle. Upon completion, the very first Baptist work in Huaorani territory had officially come into being as a recognized church. No, there was no by-laws and constitution. But from this day forward the baptized believers would be considered charter members and records would be kept of additions into the body of Christ by baptism. Hence forth the church would officially operate as the “Iglesia Cristiana Bautista” in the heart of the Amazon jungle as a clear picture of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three come together in My name, there am I with them” (Mt. 18:20).

Great joy prevailed as the shadows of the congregants moved about inside of the church in the candlelight. There was much chatter between each other as different gifts were exchanged and the celebration came to a close. I was visiting with Gabriel, the chief, when he took from his head a handmade Ocelot headdress which he placed on my head. Through an interpreter I asked if this was mine or what and he said he was giving it to me as a gift. Now that was a true treasure. I then pulled a large fixed blade hunting knife from my pocket that I had brought to give to him. I told him I hoped he would skin many monkeys and wild hogs with this knife. He was thrilled and the next day I saw that he was wearing it on the hike out of the jungle. There were some others who had brought things to trade and so I went to an older warrior who had made a 5 foot spear and had brought for trading. I swapped him a pair of binoculars. He was thrilled. He would have taken anything from an American just to say that he had it but I believe the binoculars will come in handy.

The night ended with us purchasing all of the artisan work the ladies of the village had made. There were bread plates, beads, carrying sacks, and other items, all made by the women for the purpose of sale.

We went to bed that night thankful for being allowed to be part of a rare and special event. We also went to bed thinking about the grueling hike we faced in the morning. I will save that for tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day Three - Friends, Weapons, and Warpaint...

Day three in the jungle dawned when the roosters began to crow at 5:00 AM. Although we didn’t get up until 6:00, it’s rather hard to sleep with Mr. Rooster evidencing such exuberance. Not a problem, however, because the jungle coming alive with the various sounds of nature was worth listening to as some early morning dozing took place.

One important tidbit I failed to share from Monday’s activities was our group’s afternoon interaction with Gabriel, Timothy, and Gallo. All three of these men are leaders among the Huaorani people. Gabriel is the tribal chief (a.k.a. president); Timothy is the pastor of the Baptist church in the village and Gabriel’s brother-in-law; Gallo is a right hand man who is intensely curious about the American way of life. The pictures you see are of these men with a blowgun and lance. We all had our try at each of these and I must confess when it came to the blowgun I was sorely lacking (no hot air comments please). This hunting tool is approximately 12 feet long and capable of shooting a dart 50 yards with incredible precision and velocity. I feel quite certain that Gabriel could shoot an eye out at 25 paces with little or no problem should that be his intention.

The lance was 10 feet long and made of a type of jungle ironwood. It was sharpened to a lethal point on both ends and is unquestionably a powerful weapon. Due to size, weight, and velocity when thrown it would easily pass through the human body and come out the other side. I was glad we only threw at a papaya that we all had trouble hitting.

Gabriel said that the reason we could not hit the target was because our faces had not been painted. Within minutes a runner brought back a plant that had red seeds inside a pod and the chief began painting our faces with red war paint. It was great fun, but it didn’t help us hit the mark.

These men are products of a culture that thrives on men being strong hunters and mighty warriors. Although they no longer war between their clans or with outsiders, you can tell they maintain a fierceness and strength by the way they carry themselves. Please do not get the wrong idea, however. The Kakatarro Huaorani were incredible hosts and never once did we feel threatened or in danger.

When visiting with the missionary I asked him about their friendly disposition and he shared that we had been invited to their village. If a stranger were to appear from the jungle at Kakatarro, they would question him as to intentions and politely request he leave. If he did not heed the request, he could possibly be in danger of harm. Further in the jungle are other Huaorani tribes that are even more primitive than our Kakatarro friends. Should you wander into their village, your life could be in grave danger.

The Ecuadorian government has little power over enforcement of laws among the Huaorani people. These are self-governing tribes that maintain a strict code of conduct. For crimes such as murder, rape, child molestation, capital punishment would be the sentence. For lesser crimes such as stealing, public beating would serve as a deterrent. I find their swift judicial process quite interesting in light of the loose system of justice so common in America.

With the church painted on Tuesday, we sought to build a storage building on the back of the church on Wednesday. As you can see form these pictures we set the foundation posts in place and built a frame for flooring and walls. Digging postholes was done with a machete and concrete was river sand and gravel that would harden up when dried. The structure was complete all but the flooring and walls by the end of the day.

At lunch on Wednesday I had my first taste of monkey. Gabriel had gone hunting that morning with his antiquated 16 gauge single barrel shotgun and had killed two monkeys. The picture you see is the traditional way they tie the tails together to carry them through the woods. The other pictures you see are the monkey arm I was given and the head of a monkey that was boiled in the same pot with our food. I will confess that I was not upset when the monkey head was kept to be eaten by the Indians. The arm I was eating was enough for me. People have asked what it tasted like and my best answer is squirrel. It is a dark, tough meat with not a lot of flavor. All in all, it wasn’t that bad.
They also steamed fish for us on Wednesday. This was fish caught in their river, cleaned, and wrapped in banana leaves for steaming. It was delicious!

That afternoon we celebrated a special event that would take place later that evening – the chartering of the very first Baptist church in Huaorani territory. I will tell you more about that tomorrow.

Spiritual Applications –
First, my experience among the Huaorani proved a precursor to Revelation 7 and what we might expect around the throne of God in eternity. I have long held that Anglos may be the minority in heaven because there are so many people of color around the world. Verses 9-10, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” In eternity I will worship my Savior with Gabriel, Timothy, Gallo and other Huaorani brothers and sisters I met at Kakatarro.

Second, Jesus Christ is oftentimes the only thing we have to offer people of other nations. When I viewed my friends at Kakatarro, it was not difficult to surmise what all they lacked from an American point of view. Nonetheless, these are some of the richest people I have ever met. They have very few needs and even less worries. They do not have electric bills, water bills, credit card debt or house payments. Worry about retirement accounts and interest rates play no role in their daily thoughts. They do not fret about where their next meal is coming from and there seems to be very little jealousy over what others might have that they do not. In essence, I have determined that should I have been born a Huaorani Indian boy I would have loved every minute of it because it is a life centered upon nature, hunting, fishing, and freedom. Maybe we could learn some things about materialism from these people who have so little and yet are so richly blessed. So what do we have to offer them? What must we offer them? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our most important contribution to these people who have little need of what else we might offer.

Stay tuned tomorrow for some additional thoughts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Day Two - Total Dependence...

Yesterday I described the hike into the Amazon jungle and my arrival at the Huaorani Indian village of Kakatarro. I felt as though I had stepped back in time because there was no running water, no electricity, no technology or modern conveniences. The Indians exist by daily hunting and fishing for food. Other than Yucca (pronounced you-ka) and a small amount of corn, they grow very few crops. The jungle provides certain green vegetables and fruit, but for the most part they eat what they catch or kill.

On Tuesday we arose at 6:00 to start the day. After breakfast – which consisted of some fried plantain and a very soft fried egg – our first order of business was to paint the church in Kakatarro. The pictures you see here are the men at work and the finished product of the painted church. Yes, you are right, most would not choose to paint their church blue and white but for some reason it seemed to fit this community very well.

After lunch of chicken – killed, plucked, and cleaned that day – deer, rice and of course yucca, we finished the paint job on the church and went for a swim in the river. If you have ever been to New Braunfels and seen the Comal River that is what the Kakatarro village river reminded me of. It is a beautiful, clear flowing body of water; cold and refreshing.

That afternoon I taught the first time on the characteristics of a believer in Christ. Their worship was genuine and their love for Christ so evident. That evening after supper I taught on the perseverance of the believer in Christ and God truly blessed. My illustrations had to be changed because these sweet Christians have never seen a television or microwave. They have never had a refrigerator or stove. They didn’t understand much of what we take for granted. After explaining the biblical text, it proved quite a challenge to illustrate it in a manner they can understand. However, one area to which every culture can relate are the difficulties and trials of life. When I shared some of the events that have tried my faith most, the connection was made and they related wonderfully. I will forever treasure teaching the Word of God to a distant and exotic people as we gathered in an open-air church by candlelight.

Spiritual applications thus far on the mission trip –
First, when I was trudging forward on the trail to get to the village, I could not help but make the connection between the similarities of my walk up the trail and my Christian walk through life. As the Amazon trail grew increasingly more difficult and exhausting, I ceased worrying about the next hill or obstacle and just began taking them one-by-one. I had overcome everything the trail had thrown at me thus far and as I walked further my confidence grew and I reasoned that I could overcome whatever unknown obstacle lay ahead. God had strengthened me and was continuing to do so. What a picture of the Christian life. As a believer in Jesus Christ I am on a trail headed towards a sure destination - Heaven. I am not sure when I will arrive, only God knows. As I walk with God I need not worry about the next trial I may face as a Christian, I simply need to rely on His strength to see me through. There is no going back or quitting. Every trial I face and overcome leaves me stronger in my faith than before. All I am required to do is move forward in daily dependence on Jesus Christ. What sweet beauty in living there is when we do not have to fret over what we cannot see, we simply place our trust in the God who sees all and we know that He will never leave us nor forsake us. Life is better that way!

Second, as I walked through the jungle and for the entire time I was with the Huaorani’s, I was keenly aware of my total dependence upon God. There are no emergency rooms or hospitals close by. If a major medical issue arose or a bone was broken or a snake bite occurred, you are on your own. No EMT trained response team is coming. When you are in this situation you are totally dependent upon God for your protection and safety. I found this very liberating. Far too often we worry about that which we should not when all God wants us to do is place our total dependence on Him. Life is better that way!

Finally, and I will give more tomorrow, I was reminded of the healing power of forgiveness. In 1956 Jim Elliot and four other men were murdered by the Huaorani Indians. They were mislabeled as Auca’s at that time but it was the Huaorani’s who speared these five missionaries to death on the banks of the Curaray River just a short distance from where we were staying. I met a nephew of one of the men involved in the murders. He is a devout believer and has been used by God to open the door for the Gospel among his people. The picture you see here is with Pei, a man who has received God’s forgiveness as have I and who longs greatly to see the Gospel advanced among the Huaorani. Life is better when we embrace the healing that comes through forgiveness!

God bless and stay tuned for more tomorrow. I will tell you about the pastor, chief and eating monkey then.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back In Time...

Last Monday at 10:15 AM I stepped back in time. I had travelled to Ecuador with six other men from the US on a mission trip to the Ecuadorian jungle. We had left Houston the previous Friday, arriving in metropolitan Quito at 9:30 PM for an overnight stay at Howard Johnsons. We arose early the next morning and headed out of the Andes Mountains to our jungle destination of Tena, located on the banks of the Napo River.

I preached at Terere Baptist church in Tena on Sunday morning. What an incredible experience as roughly 200 gathered for worship – a mega church by Ecuadorian standards. That afternoon I led two different Bible conference sessions for local pastors and church leaders at UNPES, the camp we were staying at outside of Tena. What a blessing I received as I met so many godly brothers and sisters in Christ. I went to bed at 10:00 Sunday night anticipating the travel back into time to the Huaorani (pronounced Waodoni) Indian village of Kakatarro.

Early Monday we climbed in the back of a produce truck for a 2 ½ hour ride deep into the jungle. Along the way we were joined by a number of Quichiwa Indians who would hike into the village with us. By the time we loaded all who would participate, we had 37 people stuffed in the back of the truck with the tarp pulled over because we wanted to remain dry and it was trying to sprinkle. Man, were we in for an awakening.

At the end of the road – literally – we hoisted our backpacks, met some of the Huaorani Indians who had walked from their camp to greet us and headed into the jungle for the hike of a lifetime.

The trail had been chopped by machete through the dense forest and was fairly easy to follow. For the first 15 minutes we laughed, talking and were thinking this to be no big deal. Steve Thompson, the local missionary, had advised that if we grew tired along the trail to hand our backpacks off to one of the Indians and they would be glad to assist us. He had described a previous trip into the jungle where a man was soon physically wiped out so he handed his pack off only to find that a pregnant Indian woman carried it the rest of the way. Now, if you know me, you know that just would not cut it. How could I stand before my church after having let a pregnant woman lug my backpack into the jungle because I bummed out from exhaustion? Time would tell.

We came to our first log bridge and scurried across like jungle pros. We walked five more minutes and came to the bottom of the first of MANY steep hills and the fun (yes, I jest) began. I affectionately named the hill “Stairway to Heaven” without realizing just how true the moniker proved to be. The climb seemed to have no end. Higher and higher, steeper and steeper, with slippery mud from the rain that was now falling profusely, our journey went. I began praying. First for my men whom I traveled with and then for myself. Up and down, hill after hill we trudged. The mud was so slippery that it was just as perilous going downhill as it was strenuous going up. We walked and walked, each person going at his own pace. Because of this, I found myself walking through the Amazon jungle alone much of the hike. I loved it! The rain, mud and hills made the going so incredibly tough but I was totally in tune with the fact that I was where billions would only read about and never experience. I crossed so many swollen streams and rivers that I lost count. The water was often up to my waste and yet I would see the trail leading up the slippery opposite bank and ahead I walked. At one point I walked by a huge animal den and paused at the entrance wondering what was inside. At that moment I saw two eyes looking back at me. I couldn’t tell what it was so I thought I would take my flashlight out. At that moment I pinched myself and moved out. I thought, “You dummy. You don’t have any weapon other than a pocket knife and there are things that will eat you in the jungle.” I continued my walk, backpack and all.

I walked and walked for what seemed like forever. Finally at 4:01 PM I topped the final hill and there before me was Kakatarro. I had made it, backpack and all, and was physically exhausted. I thought for sure I must have walked for 10 or more miles but found later that the distance was only 4.7. Putting this in perspective, I have run two full marathons in my life, both faster than the 5:15 minutes it took for me to cover 4.7 miles in the Amazon. What a trip!

I arrived at the camp and headed to the river to clean off the mud accumulated since the last crossing. Upon entering the cold water I began having intense muscle spasms and cramps in both legs that would continue for much of the evening. But I had made the journey and was the first one of our group to arrive. The cramping and pain was real but the elation from having achieved a grueling physical accomplishment overshadowed the negative effects. I was at my home where I would live with the Huaoroni’s and share Jesus with them for the next three days. Life was good; God had blessed; I was back in time.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more of the adventure.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ecuador Jungle Missions...

Later this week I leave for a 9 day mission trip to the Ecuadorian jungle. Last year I made a similar trip where we spent time doing construction on a church at a retreat for pastors and their families. We were on the fringe of the jungle last year, complete with running water and electricity. This trip we will travel into the jungle in the back of a produce truck and then hike for 1/2 day further to our destination. Yeah, it kind of reminds me of "Romancing the Stone" and them riding in the bus up the mountain with the chickens and pigs roaming free around their feet. We will spend 4 nights sleeping on mats under mosquito nets as we stay in a Huarani indian village. The days will be spent building a church - something this village has never had - and attending a Bible conference which I will be leading. It will be an exciting, exhausting, rewarding and tough trip - but loads of fun doing ministry in a totally different context.

Please pray for me and the rest of the team daily. Pray that the Gospel will be presented well everytime I stand to speak and that Christ will be honored. Pray for those who are lost to come to know Jesus as Savior. Pray for harmony among all those traveling and for our security. This is a pretty remote area and we need God's hand of protection all the way. Also, please pray for my ankle. If you have seen me lately, you know that I severely sprained my ankle the Saturday before Easter. It has made good progress, but is not healed to where I'm not still hobbling to some extent. Please pray that the ankle will hold up during the hike so that the men I am going with don't have to drag the pastor in and out of the woods. Too funny!

Thanks in advance for praying and I will report in detail when I get back about all God does while visiting this beautiful country on mission for Him.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I Choose the Roller Coaster...

Yesterday Andi and I were talking about life, kids, dreams, and the future. We do that quite regularly. While we talked she used the analogy of the life of faith we have been called to live as either a roller coaster or a merry-go-round. She contrasted the adventures of the roller coaster with its ups, downs and quick turns to the monotony of the merry-go-round. And then she said what I already knew to be true about her - "I choose the roller coaster!" What an incredible woman of faith God has blessed me with.

Faith is not easy. Why do we think that faith should come easy when it costs God so much? Why do we think that when we pray we should just automatically get an answer from Him without some hard-working, sweaty faith along the way? Why do we feel the need to help God out after we've prayed for a while, giving Him a back door exit just in case our prayers aren't answered like we've asked? Why do we feel the need to manipulate circumstances to aid God in His marvelous work? Why do we ever get the idea that living a life of faith in an unseen God, trusting Him completely and relying on Him fully is easy? We should be ashamed.

And yet, most never experience a roller coaster life of faith because they are either unwilling to persevere and believe or just simply give up and become hopeless. They saddle up on the painted pony of their choice and sit while the horse bobs up and down and the music blares in their ears. At first they grab the reins and lean forward into the ride but soon realize that little is needed to stay in the saddle because there is no adventure to be expected. They go round and round and experience a life of Christian monotony that never takes off to explore a new horizon. Many become so boring in their walk with God and then wonder why there is nothing contagious about their faith when they encounter those who need saving faith.

Well, Andi, I choose the roller coaster with you! I wouldn't want to ride it with anyone else. I want us to sit in the front seat, not the back, and I want to top the next hill with you, look down the rails and know that we may scream a little along the ride but the cars are intact, the rails are secure, the speed is not unmanageable, but the joy is unmistakable. I want to throw our arms up in the air and look up to God and laugh as we twist and turn along the route. I want us to lean into the curves together and experience the forces that propel us forward. I want us to arrive at our destination with a screeching halt and look at each other and say, "Wow! That was fun! Wanna go again?"