Amazon River · Spirituality

What I needed in the Amazon

I have returned from my adventure with Justice & Mercy International into the Amazon Jungle! I did not lose a finger to a piranha, and I survived sleeping in a hammock on the deck of a boat for five nights. I got to swim with a pink dolphin, feed a wild monkey, explore the jungle, and ride a boat through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.

The trip was not just for exploring the beauty of Brazil, however. Our group of thirty-five women from all over the country bonded through times of Bible study with Kelly Minter and Angela Pharr, worshipped with a sweet group of Brazilian musicians, and had opportunities to serve the people living in the remote villages along the river.

God’s presence was all around, as near as the breezes off the water. I was lifted along by the prayers that I knew were being prayed for me and my fellow travelers from Dalton, Lisa and Suzanne. With time away from the distractions of television, internet, and iPhone, I could hear God’s voice more clearly.

On our second night, Angela Pharr put our group of over forty women and staff into a big circle on the top deck of our boat and asked us to share what we needed on the day before we left for the trip. The responses were heartfelt as people poured out their pain and prayers.

I pondered and decided that what I needed was more of the Holy Spirit.

Frankly, the thought of having more Holy Spirit in my life was frightening. Would I start speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor? Would I become one of those people who are so spiritual that they are of no earthly good? Would I become weird??

I grew up in the traditional church and was there every time the doors were open. I have a seminary degree, have participated in countless women’s groups and Sunday School classes, and have spent many hours poring over the Scriptures on my own. I know the Bible pretty well and love to study and teach it.

But in the last months, I felt I was missing an important piece, the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)

So, I stepped out on that limb in the weeks before this momentous trip and asked God to fill me. And He didn’t disappoint.

I’m still unpacking the experience, but in the coming weeks I want to share more of what the Holy Spirit taught me on the quiet of the river. Today I’m sharing what I needed, and in the next few weeks we will look at what I found and what I left behind.

The jungle hides its secrets. When we took an early morning walk through a path in the brush, we saw fascinating trees, huge termite mounds, and vines and bushes living in a complex pattern of interrelatedness, but the only sounds we heard were the shrill call of the screaming pihi birds somewhere in the canopy above us. Compared to my Southern woods full of birds and squirrels, the jungle was downright quiet. The animals there have developed camouflage that makes them invisible to the untrained eye. I was hoping for a glimpse of a parrot or toucan in the wild, but no luck.

The Negro River, which we were on for most of the trip, is dark and black, and I could not see even a few inches below the surface. After each meal on the boat, we were instructed to throw our food scraps into the water and I always looked to see if a fish would jump up to grab something, but the leftovers floated gently to the shore.

These animals do not want to be seen.

To the experienced men who served as our jungle guides for the week, the river and forest look very different. One night we took off in our smaller boats (think Disney Jungle Cruise) in search of caimans, a variety of alligator that we were told can grow up to twenty feet.

Our guide stood on the prow of the boat with a large flashlight, as gleeful as a boy. He directed the driver to pull slowly along the side of the tributary and as the boat idled, he suddenly thrust his hand into the water and came out holding a baby caiman around the neck!

He carefully passed it around to our group of delighted women and we each had our pictures taken with the scary looking little guy.

Although this caiman was small, he did have sharp teeth. Through the translator, I asked our guide, “How do you know how to put your hand in so that you are not getting its teeth?”

“I look for the eyes,” he replied, “and grab behind them.”

Simple, right?

Our guide knew how to pull that caiman out of the water because he was experienced — he has probably been doing it since he was paddling around on a canoe as a boy, He has trained himself to know the sounds, smells, and imperceptible movements of the jungle, which are unseen to me.

Often my interactions with God seem as impenetrable as the dense rainforest foliage. I can read the Bible, scan commentaries, follow Christian podcasts, be vigilant with my devotionals, and talk to friends and it skims off me as it I was Teflon. None of it penetrates the distractions and walls I let in.

God showed me on the river that I need to have clear and focused eyes to see the working of the Holy Spirit in and around my life. This verse from Ephesians has struck me:

 “I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do..”

Ephesians 1:18, The Message

As I gazed at the clear blue sky on the top deck of the Splendor, my prayer was for the Holy Spirit to give me discernment and to open my heart to what He wanted me to take away from that place. I prayed for clear and focused eyes so that I would be aware of the power that comes from the Holy Spirit working within me.

The result has been a peace of knowing, of feeling sure of my faith and of the presence of the Holy Spirit within me.

I encourage you to read Ephesians 1:17-19 and insert me and I each time Paul uses you. I was surprised at the power of these verses when I applied them to myself on that personal level. God promises in these verses to let us in on His magnificent mysteries and to know what he would have us to do.

@JusticeMercyInt · Amazon River · Mission Trip · Spirituality

I’m going to the Amazon!

I planted my little raised-bed vegetable garden a few weeks ago, gently putting my squash, tomato, cucumber, and pepper plants into the freshly turned soil. They are coming up nicely after our recent rains.

My little garden

The real work was done months before. Back in October, after I pulled up the last of the pepper plants, I started using the vegetable bed as a compost pile. Over the winter I put my coffee grounds, smashed eggshells, potato peelings and brown lettuce in the dirt with grass clippings and ashes from my burn pile. About once a week I took my shovel and mixed everything up good, and voila!  Like magic, my scraps had turned into dark rich soil.

This spring I added a second raised bed and spent most of an afternoon mixing up part of the compost with a few bags of store bought ‘raised bed dirt,’ until I had a nice comfortable place for my vegetables to spread out. Digging the holes and plopping them into their spots was the easy part.

This simple verse from Paul came to my mind as I surveyed my accomplishment:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.”

I Corinthians 3:6

Even back in the time of the early church, people argued over which preacher was the best. Paul tells them that they need to quit putting so much emphasis on which man they are going to follow, and instead focus on what God is doing. God needs all of us fulfilling what we feel called to do for his plans to work.

Sometimes we use the term God’s timing to describe events that arrive in our lives at just the right moment. Often God is preparing us to be ready for something that he wants to teach us or do for him. He is getting our soil ready to grow the seeds that he is going to plant.

I did not realize it, but God had been preparing my soil for an adventure I’m undertaking in less than two weeks. Along with my friends Lisa and Suzanne and thirty-eight women from all over the country, I’m heading down the Amazon River on a boat to study the Bible, learn about the ministry of Justice and Mercy International, and interact with the people who live in the remote villages tucked away in the jungle. To say I am excited is an understatement!

The new three level boat we will be on.

I feel very humbled at the opportunity to go on this trip. A year ago I would not have been ready for this experience, but I look back and see how God has been working to turn the drab bits and parts of me into rich compost that can accept and grow the seeds he is planting.

I will be honest to say that my motives for going on the trip are not wholly altruistic. I am so excited to see the vast beauty of the Amazon River and to be in a South American country. I am looking forward to getting to know the other women on the trip, who are coming from all over the United States. I am even curious about sleeping on the deck of a boat in a hammock for a week! (I will be sure to report back to you on that.)

The last few months I have been reading about Brazil, shopping for jungle appropriate clothes and planning for what I will pack. I got my second Covid booster, have my malaria pills ready to take and a prescription for anti-diarrhea medicine just in case (!).

But now I am spending more time in prayer to get my soil/soul ready. As one of my fellow travelers said at a recent Zoom meeting, “We need to make sure we have our inner packing list in order.”

This will be my first time on this type of overseas trip where we will be getting to know the villagers, having Vacation Bible School activities with the children, and participating in worship services. I am a little scared at what God is planning to plant in me, but I want to be receptive to whatever it is.

The folks at Justice and Mercy International have been working for years with the people along the river and with the ‘jungle pastors’ who minister by traveling to the villages by boat. My few days among the women and children seem like a small ripple on the huge Amazon River, but God can cause each ripple to grow into a wave.

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.”

The trip is June 11- 19. I ask for your prayers for myself, the others on the trip, our leaders, and the Brazilian employees who will be steering the boat and fixing our meals. Pray for our families at home as well.

And please pray for the souls/soil of the villagers we will meet along the way.  Others have come before and planted and watered. Pray that they will be ready to let God grow.

Click here to watch a short video of the boat we will be on.

grace · rest · Spirituality

Rhythms of Grace

I spent a few days last week in the woods near Blairsville, Georgia, helping put up a fence. I was there with a group from my church on a mission trip. Sometimes mission trips are for others and sometimes they are for us. This one was for me.

Carrie and Nathan Dean live with their four children, ages twelve to two, in a three-room cabin in the North Georgia mountains. They are building a church/house where they will live and also use as a place to minister to those who may not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. I wrote about the lessons I learned about being a follower when I helped to erect the building last summer. In the last year Carrie and Nathan have been working on the nine acres surrounding their home, with a vision to make it a place for folks to come and experience God in the beauty of His nature.  

 I started out this trip as an assistant — I held posts and handed tools to those doing the actual work. At first, I felt frustrated that I was not doing more. After all, I was there to work!

But slowly the calm and quiet of the setting began to infiltrate my being. I stood by the gently flowing creek waiting to hand metal clips to my friends Debby and Cheryl, who had become experts at attaching a wire fence to metal poles. I listened to the birds and a distant owl, and to the voices of our team as they called to each other. I breathed in the smells of pine trees, moss, and leaves composting on the ground.

Cheryl and I attaching fence posts.

I prayed in the quiet of the woods, lifting up several friends going through difficult times, for my family, for our team and for myself.  Like the fern fronds that were spread throughout the trees, my consciousness opened to receive peace and grace. I let go of the shoulds and should haves that run through my mind on a regular basis and felt my daily stresses fall away.

During my devotion time the next morning, I read the familiar passage in Matthew when Jesus is telling us to come to him when we are weary. This time I read it from the modern translation, The Message. The words jumped out at me:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

(Matt. 11:28-30)

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. God’s rhythm and our rhythms are often not in sync. Jobs, our families, paying the bills, cutting the grass, cooking dinner, going to meetings— all these demands of life cause us to be on the go, even for those of us in the retired stage of life.

God’s rhythm is a slower pace.  When I match his pace, I walk with Jesus, instead of running ahead of him with my own agenda. I listen, instead of telling him what I think he needs to know or do. I share my fears and anger with him and let him take them over so that I don’t have to carry them by myself. Instead of being tired from working so hard, I come away from my time with him feeling refreshed— walking more freely and lightly.

Notice that Jesus is asking us to learn these unforced rhythms and how to rest from him. Did you ever think you needed to learn to rest? Many of us do and learning takes time.

We all need a break occasionally from our daily rhythms so that we can sync back up with God. I found that time in the woods last week. You may find it by getting away to listen to the ocean waves, taking a walk in the park, or sitting in a chair in your backyard. God is waiting on you.

For more information on Blue Mountain Church, visit their website.

#Holy Week · #Plagues · Spirituality

Three Plagues

I laughed out loud when I read my friend Christy Bass Adams’ post about chasing a mouse around her house one quiet evening. You can read it here at her blog, Learning As I Go.

We once had a similar experience chasing a baby squirrel around the house. It faced the same consequences as the mouse in Christy’s story, which involved being on the wrong end of a BB gun.

Last week we found evidence in our kitchen that some mice had been playing around in the drawers and nibbling on my dark chocolate in the pantry. Fortunately, we did not have to chase any around the house but caught three in traps Keith set out. Yuck!  I threw out and cleaned everywhere I thought they had been. Our kitchen is now booby trapped for any other creatures that dare come in.

A few months ago we had our annual infestation of lady bugs, which love our white frame house. I was sweeping up dustpans full every day, so we finally set off some bug bombs in the attic. That resulted in hordes of ugly black flies which fell drunkenly all over the floor and on every surface in the front of the house. More sweeping and vacuuming. Ugh.

Lady bugs, flies, and mice — what next? I am feeling like we are in the middle of a Biblical plague.

God sent the plagues to the Egyptians to try to convince Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave. Working through Moses and Aaron, God wanted to show Pharaoh how powerful He was.

Yet, throughout the months of the ten plagues, God protected the Hebrews from the worst of them. They did not have to endure the swarms of flies or the deaths of their livestock. He warned them before the plague of hail so that they could bring in their animals and make sure they were not out in the fields. And when darkness settled over all of Egypt, the Hebrews had light in their homes.

Most famously, God told the Hebrews to kill a lamb and put its blood on their doorframes on the night of the Plague of the Firstborn, when the Angel of Death would come to take all the firstborn sons and animals. When Pharaoh’s own son died, his heart was finally moved and he conceded to allow the Hebrew slaves, their families, and their livestock to leave.

From that time forward, the Jewish people have celebrated Passover, commemorating the Death Angel passing over the homes of the Hebrews and sparing their sons, and the release of the people to freedom.

Jesus and his disciples were having their Passover meal when he broke the news to them that it would be their last one together. As we celebrate Holy Week at our churches, many of us will be having Communion to remember this important event in our story as Christians.

I love the symbolism found in the Passover meal and the Last Supper. Just as the Hebrews were set free from their slavery, we have been set free from sin. When Jesus took the bread and cup of wine and shared it with these men and women who had spent almost every day with him for the last three years, he explained that he now represented the lamb that was sacrificed for Passover. Just as the blood of the lamb protected the Hebrews from death, we are saved by the blood he shed.

As I take the cup and unleavened bread this year, I am reminded that God will not let the plagues overcome me. When those days come that bring circumstances more serious than flies and mice, I have the confidence that I do not have to go through it alone.

Gardening · Psalm 92 · Spirituality

Staying bendable

How bendable are you?

I’ve been thinking about this question as I walk around my yard on these balmy Spring days. The world is greening up, the sun is warm, and the days are getting longer. My flowers and plants are pushing their heads up out of their winter sleep to bask in the sunshine.

Each day is a treasure hunt as I poke around the flower beds and look for sprouts coming up from under the ground. I survey the saplings that I planted this time last year, twisting their little limbs in my fingers. If the branch bends, I rejoice that the tree is still alive. If it is hard and breaks off, I know that, sadly, it did not make it through the winter.

If being bendable is a sign of life for my plants, what does it mean in my life?  Am I growing and thriving, or getting stiff and rigid?

How bendable am I?

One of my baby trees budding out!

I have certainly learned that my body quickly becomes unbendable if I’m not making an effort to keep it moving. If I spend too much time sitting on the couch, I soon get ‘stove up.’ I’ve taken up swimming a few times a week at the local pool and love how it makes me feel. Walking, working in the yard, and stretching are all important for my ‘senior’ years.

My mind needs to stay bendable and growing too. Each evening for the past few weeks, I have put my brain to figuring out Wordle and Quordle. I look forward to the challenge each day. I feel so smart when I figure them out without giving in to hints!

Perhaps most importantly though, my spiritual muscles need to stay pliable. If you have grown up in the church like me, it is easy to get into a boring rut when it comes to our Christian lives. We can feel like we have heard it all before. Before I know it, I have become rigid and unbending in my attitudes and have stopped growing. Familiar passages just wash over me, not touching any part of my daily life.

These verses from Psalm 92 spoke to me this week as I thought about the need to stay bendable in my spiritual life:

“The righteous will spring up like a palm tree.
    They will grow strong like a cedar of Lebanon.
13 Those who have been replanted in the Lord’s house
    will spring up in the courtyards of our God.
14 They will bear fruit even when old and gray;
    they will remain lush and fresh 15 in order to proclaim:
      “The Lord is righteous. He’s my rock.
        There’s nothing unrighteous in him.” (Psalm 92:12-14, CEB)

I want to be strong like that cedar of Lebanon replanted in the Lord’s house. I want to keep bearing fruit now that I am old and gray so that I can proclaim what God has done for me. I don’t want to get stiff and stagnant in my relationship to God.

I also love these verses from Psalm 1:

“Blessed people are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
which bears fruit at just the right time
and whose leaves don’t fade.
Whatever they do succeeds.” (Psalm 1: 3)

According to these passages, the secret to staying fruit-bearing is to stay in the Lord’s courtyard and be fed by the streams of water. For me, that means studying, praying, and keeping myself open to new ideas.

Through my Audible subscription I have access to the Great Courses lectures. Right now I’m listening to The Making of the New Testament Canon and enjoying a review of classes I took years ago in seminary. Looking at a familiar Bible story from a scholarly viewpoint, learning about the time in which the Bible was written, exploring the worldview of the Jewish people in Jesus’ life — all of these keep my spiritual life fresh. I don’t have to agree with everything I read, but those “aha” moments when I get a new insight are life-giving.

What are you doing to stay alive and bendable? I would love to hear your comments!

Here are a few books that I have read recently that have given me a different perspective and challenged my beliefs:

  • The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi: My Journey into the Heart of Scriptural Faith and the Land Where It All Began, by Kathy Lee Gifford and Rabbi Jason Sobel
  • Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World, by Andy Stanley
  • Live in Grace, Walk in Love, by Bob Goff
  • Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr