The jail and prison have closed doors to ministry. We’ve moved our weekly Tierra Nueva gatherings for worship online. Our April commitments to teach in Zambia, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland have all been postponed until the Fall due to corona-related border closures. Closures of health clubs, schools, recovery meetings, cinemas, restaurants are forcing people to do what’s recommended—to stay home.
What’s a follower of Jesus to do in these precarious times?
The only time Jesus’ disciples went home was after Jesus was crucified and buried, when they “as yet did not understand the Scripture that he must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes” (Jn 20:9-10).
The Scripture that comes to mind as I contemplate these times is Acts 8:1, which describes that persecution that began after Stephen’s martyrdom, “and they were all scattered through the regions.” The gathered believers could no longer gather—and Philip went to Samaria, “proclaiming Christ to them” (Acts 8:4). This resulted in crowds attentively listening, witnessing signs like unclean spirits leaving, paralyzed and lame being healed and “much rejoicing in that city.”
Now is an opportunity for those scattered from normal gathered communities to consider the Spirit’s clear guidance—wisely discerned.
Right now across the world, the homeless, those struggling with mental health disorders, and addictions, and others in active recovery people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. As churches, homeless shelters, restaurants, and casinos close their doors, these populations are in many cases feeling abandoned.
This past Wednesday we put a call out for people interested in ministry to gather at Tierra Nueva with a plan to walk the streets, seeking to find vulnerable people and share information about the virus and what they can do, and offer to pray. We printed up hundreds of copies of a half-sheet flyer in English and in Spanish with the health department’s colorful poster outlining key recommendations on one side, and Psalm 91 and Luke 18:38 on the other.
Six of us showed up, gathering outside our Tierra Nueva building in Burlington in a circle, keeping the minimal six feet distance. We sang a worship song, prayed together and then put on gloves, equipped ourselves with face masks and hand sanitizer before deciding together which areas of our valley we planned to cover for an hour of outreach.
Salvio and Victoria headed for Walmart to look for Spanish-speaking immigrants, who are especially in need of information and encouragement. Roger and Andrew made rounds, looking for, finding and praying for people under the freeway bridge and in the laundromat. Gracie and I drove around and prayed for the people of our valley—leaving off Spanish flyers at a Mexican carniceria (butcher).
Last night I went out by myself, on my way back from picking up a trailer full of composted manure for our garden. I was dressed in work clothes after having spent the afternoon putting in posts to protect this year’s garden from deer.
I’d had an 18-year-old homeless Native American man on my heart, who attends Tierra Nueva fairly regularly. Since he has no fixed domicile and no cell phone, I never know how to find him. I decided to park in downtown Mt Vernon beside a boardwalk along the river where homeless people often frequent. There before me was Nathan (not his real name), walking along the boardwalk. I jumped out of my car and yelled towards him: “Nathan! I’ve been thinking about you.”
He stopped, looking surprised. I locked my car and joined him, walk with him for a mile or so towards the next town. He mostly responded to my questions. He didn’t know much about what was happening with the virus, didn’t know where he would camp that night. He told me he felt God was with him, but wasn’t able to explain how. We prayed together and he agreed to take flyers, handing them out to others he would run into. We agreed to touch base on Facebook messenger so we can meet up in a park for a Bible study.
As the sun was about to go down I headed back down the boardwalk until, approaching an older homeless man who looked cold and miserable. I stopped more than ten feet from him as he began to sneeze into his arm.
“How are you sir?” I asked. “Terrible,” he said. “I’m homeless.”
I asked him if he’d like a flyer with Psalm 91, and information on the coronavirus. He seemed eager for some kind of connection and gladly received. I asked him if I could pray for him and he looked surprised, saying he did.
I raised a hand towards him and declared Jesus’ love over him. I blessed him with God’s love, peace, freedom from fear, protection, healing and whatever else I could think of. His face became calm and radiant, and he suddenly burst out: “Look at the light!” The sun was just setting through the trees above the river bank on the opposite side of the river, illuminating our faces as I turned. He thanked me and I moved on down the boardwalk.
I could see another group of three homeless people gathered around a bicycle. As I got closer I saw a middle-aged woman and two men, talking quietly. I approached them, offering them the flyer with Psalm 91 and the virus info.
They gladly received the flyers, telling me they were starting to get more worried. One of the men knew about Psalm 91, mentioning the pestilence, which he pronounced “pentilence”- a strange combo word that perhaps prophetically put together penitence and pestilence.
I offered to pray for them and they gladly received my blessings from a distance. I continued on, offering my flyer to a Mexican couple, and some Spanish-speaking young people. As night descended I returned down the board walk towards my car, walking past the three homeless people. One of the men called me over, asking if I knew where he could get a coat. He had just been released from jail and only had a thin long sleeve shirt—hardly enough to protect him from these cold nights.
I was able to help him out with a coat, heading home with a warm heart- loving that I was able to share in Jesus’ joy in ministering in a time of need.
May God richly bless and inspire you as you refuse anxiety, seeking first Jesus’ Kingdom in these dangerous times. Below I’ve included a suggested statement that might inspire you are you reach out, with care and courage.
“Hi, I’m _________ from the Christian church/es, and this is _________ . We are out praying and raising awareness tonight about the coronavirus. We’re in a critical time where lives can be saved. We’re especially concerned about the most vulnerable—the homeless, people struggling with addictions, and the elderly. We believe God especially cares about all these people—and we do too.
We ourselves may be carriers of the virus, which is why we’re going to keep our distance from you. Anyone can be a carrier—you yourself. Even if you don’t have symptoms. Here’s a powerful Psalm, Psalm 91 and another prayer that you can read or pray. On the back there’s some info about how you can keep safe and healthy so our community won’t be hit too hard. We’d love to be able to pray for you right now if you’d like—for God’s protection, healing, anything you want.”
Check out our weekly and daily podcasts and devotionals here.
The Bible tells the story of God’s pursuit, liberation, and recruitment of human beings as agents of blessing for the world. God calls people throughout Scripture, launching them as announcers and change agents to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
Lately I’ve been despairing as I read the news. Here in the United States we’ve been through a tumultuous season, with hostile, divisive battles raging between politicians and parties that have people divided like I’ve never seen. We are now deep into an election year that promises even more distracting battles. Cruel attacks, denials, boastful claims, and empty promises abound—with lots of money flowing to win over the electorate. What does it look like to bear witness to Jesus, the Lamb of God in these perilous times?
I’m struck by the news of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who now flee fighting in Idlib, Syria, of Central American asylum seekers along the US-Mexican border, preyed on by kidnappers as they await their hearings. My thoughts go to the inmates I visit in solitary confinement in our local jail, who are locked up alone 23 hours daily. I see widespread homelessness, and have direct and regular contact with people in our community ravaged by the opioid and meth epidemics. Certainly we must respond.
We are barraged by news that the rich and powerful are getting away with their plans and even crimes, while the number of vulnerable and impoverished people are increasing. Proclaiming and living out the good news of Jesus and the Kingdom of God in these dark times sometimes feels like engaging in a losing battle. Where is the victory of Jesus, the Lamb of God? Where do you see it?
I have been compelled to read the book of Revelation, and have worked my way through it several times— seeking and finding a broader, spiritually-informed perspective on our times that has brought some clarity and hope.
The first thing I notice is that John, the writer of Revelation, writes from the island of Patmos, where he was banished “because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Proclaiming this Word of God and bearing witness to Jesus got John into trouble, and leads to martyrdom and eventual victory as the vision unfolds.
The Word of God and testimony of Jesus are concretized though John’s powerful prophetic messages to the angels of seven different churches—calling each to more faithful witness and resistance to the powers of that time. I wonder what the Word and testimony of Jesus have to say to us in our lives and contexts now?
John offers precise messages that come from God’s revelation to him for each community. Jesus invites John to come up through a door in heaven to get informed from above. From the throne room he shows him “what must take place” (4:1-2). I think we need revelation from above now to navigate in these confusing times.
John’s apocalyptic vision portrays a world in escalating conflict—like we see in our country and in many places around the world now. The accuser, dragon, beast and other antagonists relentlessly assail the victorious Lamb of God’s humble followers, through violence and deceit. The powers of darkness attack, and God’s victory in Jesus advances victorious, as if by defeat.
This advance by defeat actually gives me hope—as this matches on the ground realities we experience regularly. I’m also reminded that new life is God’s gift, coming miraculously in the midst of faithful witness, which involves surrender to Jesus and his mission to the point of death, with the hope of resurrection. In a world where money and power (might) makes right, I think we need to be reminded of the way of Jesus over and over.
John the Baptist points his disciples to Jesus: “Behold the lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36). The one who is described as worthy of worship and praise in Revelation is the slain lamb— not rich and powerful politicians or parties. Sacred scenes of heavenly worship of this slain lamb, now forever alive, happen throughout the book. This regular worship is an essential reminder of the reality of Christ’s victory, which must be celebrated in the face of chaos and death.
It is this Lamb of God, the crucified and risen Jesus alone, who is worthy to open the sealed book that outlines the impending justice-oriented judgment, and final victory.
“Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you [Jesus] were slain, and [you] purchased for God with your blood, people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (Rev 5:9-10).
This is our truest identity as followers of Jesus. We are invited to embrace our status as purchased by Jesus for God, and to step fully into our vocation as priests in Jesus’ Kingdom. I love this and feel called to recruit others into this movement. Does this look like a more compelling alternative to the divisive status quo?
The accuser who was cast out of heaven by Jesus’ victory, is now overcome on earth (as in heaven) by the resistance practices by Jesus’ followers. How can we step into this resistance now.
“Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death” (12:10-11).
Overcoming the accuser is accomplished through “the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony” (testimony = marturia in Greek). Victory is accomplished through engaging in Jesus-like resistance—to the point of death if necessary.
Those “slain because of the Word of God and the testimony which they had maintained” are given white robes and told to rest until “the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (6:9-11).
So we are not looking at a triumphalistic “taking the high places” approach, but rather a faithful life of suffering love in the heart of the world, aligned with Jesus’ earthly life visible in the Gospels.
The enemy antagonists include a dragon, who installs the beast, who appears both highly popular and all-powerful—in contrast to the vulnerable, martyred ones associated with the slain lamb.
“They worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” There was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies, and authority to act for forty-two months was given to him” (13:4-5). Where do we see such posturing in our day?
Today people are assailed by a barrage of arrogant words and blasphemies, in the form of tweets, denials, outright lies and intimidating attacks. We witness an increasingly brazen authority to rule as autocratic—even despotic governing is on the rise around the world.
The beast makes war on the saints and overcomes them (13:7), and it seems this is also happening now in different places—through a combination of propaganda and intimidation. Revelation presents the opposition to Jesus’ kingdom of priests as formidable. How does it appear to you?
“He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men” (13:14). What might equivalents of this be today?
Thankfully, an angel from heaven declares the defeat of the earthly realms of power and domination, embodied in a power called Babylon. But when will this happen?
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit…. “For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality” (18:1-3).
Where might Babylon be most visible today? To what extent are you enmeshed with this power?
God’s people are called to separate themselves: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (18:4-5).
Babylon’s fate is sealed. It will be judged and completely destroyed. In contrast, God’s people are adorned as a bride and invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:9). They have divested, differentiated themselves from the world’s ideologies and means, to fully identify with the one they worship and await.
Jesus is returning. “His eyes are a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems… He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God…. And on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’” (19:11ff).
The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven (21:10). This new kingdom does not come through political power moves—but through the Word of their (our) testimony. How can we more fully step into alignment with this Word and testimony now?
I feel inspired to depart Babylon, beginning with a renewal of my mind in alignment with God’s revelation rather than news media and political thinking. Contemplating and worshipping Jesus, the Lamb who was slain will certainly help us become re-oriented into his liberation movement.
May we re-discover the power of the blood of the Lamb, and the Word of testimony, joining the company of the kingdom of priests who await his return (and not some elected official), so we can offer true hope in a time of political illusions.
It is easy to miss the real Jesus these days– with all the media attention noting Christians and evangelicals supporting this or that candidate, issue, or past war or oppressive colonization. I myself have felt dismayed and ashamed of the widespread current and historic abuse of authority in the name of Jesus. I understand how people come to distance themselves from the oppressive side of a Christian heritage, or shelve their tainted faith altogether.
Yet there’s a loving presence and true spiritual authority that the world needs—humble, authentic, true. Jesus embodied this and exercised this authority in his earthly life, overcoming the oppressor ruler(s) of this world by defeating death through the cross. However Jesus’ overcoming authority is not obvious or even apparent at first glance. It’s not the presence and authority of a law-enforcement officer, MMA champion fighter or star scientist or athlete.
John’s Gospel alerts us early on that humility and rejection are normative for God. Jesus himself experienced rejection throughout his life, especially at the end.
“He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Lk 17:25).
It is all too common for those who follow Jesus to also experience being unseen, ignored or outright rejected. Jesus prepared his followers for this, identifying people’s acceptance or rejection of us with their acceptance or rejection of him, and of his Father.
“The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects the One who sent me” (Lk 10:16).
Our own experiences of being marginalized, invisible or rejected bring us into the widespread experience of many of the world’s sufferers– the imprisoned, elderly, homeless, lonely. A uniquely inclusive solidarity becomes possible, from which we can learn to exercise a distinct, liberating authority. This authority begins when we know ourselves to be born of God, children of the Father as our primary identity marker that outranks all other identifiers (national identity, ethnicity, party or religious affiliation, social class, education…).
John’s Gospel shows clearly how when God takes on human flesh in his son Jesus, he limits his visibility in the world to Jesus, in whom he is fully present.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
Yet this “only begotten one,” identified first as the logos, translated “Word,” is the Creator God in full splendor. This Word is present from the beginning, with God and himself God, through whom all things came into being—life, light for all people, shining in the darkness, but not comprehended (v. 5).
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own, and those who were his own did not receive him” (Jn 1:10-11).
John’s Gospel shows that resisting this tendency to not recognize and reject the living Word revealed in Jesus is the doorway into God-given authority.
“But as many as received him, to them he gave the right [literally authority or status] to become [or be] children of God, even to those who believe in his name” (Jn 1:12).
When we receive and believe in the name of the un-recognized and rejected Jesus, God gives us authority to be [and become] children of God. This status comes through adoption and not through birthright, willpower, or any kind of merit system.
”Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13).
Our authority given at this new birth sets us on a journey of “becoming,” or growing into our heavenly child-of-God status and authority that looks like Jesus.
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
Looking to Jesus we see that the unique authority given to us by the Father does not look like worldly power and authority— identified with wealth and other kinds of visible success, influence, political power, etc. It does include ministering healing, liberation and confronting injustices in the power of the Spirit, as the Apostle Paul describes.
“I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:3-4).
As we are born of God and grow into our heavenly status, we can expect to look increasingly like Jesus, both “full of grace and truth” and “a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, (1 Peter 2:4).
In John’s later Epistle this connection between Jesus’ humble, covert presence is made explicit:
“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know [recognize] us, because it did not know [recognize] him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:1-3).
May the Spirit help us recognize the Word—life, light of the world, only begotten Son of the Father. May we come to know Jesus more and more fully, receiving him again and again. May each of us enter into our heavenly identity as a child of the Father, choosing this above all other identifiers. May we fully accept our adoptive status, authority, and empowerment by the Spirit, so as to fully participate in the liberation movement called the Kingdom of God here in the midst of the old, crumbling, increasingly authoritarian regimes.
Let us turn away from all false ways we lean on for security, authority and power, fixing our hope on Jesus. May we purify ourselves as he himself is pure—so that we may enter the blessed status: “blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
See Guerrilla Bible Studies, Volume 1, Surprising Encounters with God, for a tried-and-tested Bible study on John 1, available here.
The Trump Administration’s killing of these two men on January 3, regardless of their offenses, is evil, going against God’s command: “thou shall not kill” and Jesus’ command: “love your enemies.” It also threatens to plunge the United States and the Middle East into a major war leading to far more death and destruction.
As we hear critiques and defenses, and brace ourselves for retaliatory violence and retributive counter measures, let us consider Jesus’ seeing Jerusalem and weeping over it, and practice something like this ourselves, remembering his highly relevant words:
“If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”
Jesus could see that his own people were rejecting him and his way of being Messiah through giving his life in selfless love. Jewish religious leaders and Roman authorities would soon collude to crucify him. Jesus warns his people of the consequences.
“For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
Jesus’ warning came to pass in 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.
Now we’re witnessing a similar dynamic. Trump and his supporters, and so many others who choose power and violence, become blinded to the things that make for peace. Jesus’ warning of destruction is prophetic critique: “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We have already seen too many deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else the United States has intervened militarily.
Now it is urgent (as it has always been) for followers of Jesus to publicly choose him and his way of suffering love over threats, sanctions and violence. Followers of Jesus are his ambassadors, called to embody his life-giving love, so clearly stated in the famous John 3:16-17.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
In our travels around the world Gracie and I regularly encounter people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and other Muslim majority countries. Today I sat on a nine-hour flight from Seattle to Frankfurt beside a man from Egypt and Gracie sat beside his niece. We had good conversations about faith and politics, and Gracie prayed for his niece’s ears that were in great pain. We exchanged emails and he even invited us to visit them in Egypt.
Though we are US Passport holders, we see our primary identity as citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. As ambassadors of the Kingdom of God we must differentiate ourselves from our country of origin and its policies, bearing witness to Jesus, Prince of Peace.
I long to see fellow Christian brothers and sisters be more fully given over to their baptismal, heavenly identities, distancing themselves from leaders and policies that do not reflect Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save the world, and we are called to join him in his mission. We long to see a movement of intercession and peacemaking grow, that will effectively address world and local hot spots.
I have witnessed the power of prayer as we have interceded for violent offenders in our community over the past years. In one case some gang members declared war on the local police department, engaging in a prolonged shoot out. We began to intercede for the shooters- that none of them or the police would be killed. While one of the police officers lost his eye site, a tragic outcome, the shooters were apprehended without loss of life. The main shooter has become a follower of Jesus in jail.
More recently a young man brutally shot and killed another young man in our town. I put out a call to prayer that he would be apprehended without loss of his or anyone else’s life. He was soon arrested without further incident. I have met up with him several times and he has surrendered over his life to Jesus. Both men will now have the opportunity to serve as ambassadors for Christ in the Washington State prison system.
As Donald Trump vows to bomb 52 Iranian sites should Iran retaliate against US targets for killing Suleimani, I invite you to join me to pray and work for peace. I also invite you to pursue the renewal of your mind through regular Bible study. Check out the first volume of 13 of 52 Bible studies I’m publishing, Guerrilla Bible Studies, Volume 1, God’s Surprising Encounters, available here.
Gracie and I recently returned from a visit to Honduras, where we lived from 1982-1988. Andrew Lewis, our newest Tierra Nueva colleague accompanied us. Tierra Nueva’s Honduran pastor David and his wife Esperanza hosted us for a busy week visiting families and home groups in Minas de Oro and a number of the surrounding villages.
Tierra Nueva’s ministry in Honduras started out in 1982 as a sustainable farming and health education program, with the objective of helping farmers produce abundant yields on small, steep, and impoverished plots. The program was highly successful, involving thousands of farmers. However, regional wars supported by the US increased instability, and free trade agreements benefitting N. American farmers undercut Honduran markets, leading to a massive exodus from the countryside to N. America.
It was heartbreaking for us to witness the exodus of people beginning in the late 1990s, to Spain and the USA, which has only increased—and we are really seeing the impact of that migration now. At that point we decided to help small coffee growers produce for the specialty coffee markets. Tierra Nueva started a coffee farm in 2008, which has been producing increasingly high quality coffee, offering employment to many locals in a very poor and remote mountainous region.
On this trip we were struck by the new home construction in larger towns and even in small villages, all done with remittance money sent home from Spain and N. America. Many people told us that these remittances are keeping the country afloat at a time of extreme poverty and social chaos (Honduras has the third highest murder rate per capita in the world in 2019, after El Salvador and Jamaica).
Thousands of men and women from our region have left their children with family so they can migrate in search of work. We heard many tragic stories of marriages falling apart, of people becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol or losing their lives en route to the USA or through accidents. We heard of others who ended up in immigration detention or in North American jails, finally to be deported back. Many children have grown up in Honduras without one or both of their parents, with huge impact. Many shared with us how they are convinced they must seek a viable future in Honduras. But this is extremely difficult.
Choosing to stay in Honduras may well mean sacrificing dreams of enjoying many of the basic comforts and conveniences we take for granted in N. America. Now that most villages have electricity, everyone is aware of the vast array of desirable consumer products and the allure of the American Dream.
Functional advertisements for migrating to N. America are visible to all in upscale houses and nice cars acquired with money earned by hard working immigrants living abroad (see photo below). Subsisting in Honduras may mean not being able to afford putting your children through high school, since secondary schools are in larger towns, requiring people to cover their kids’ room and board they cannot afford.
International coffee prices plummeted this year due to over production in Brazil, causing many growers to abandon their harvests. Global heating is taking its toll on Honduras’ agricultural production. In 2019 it has only rained two months, rather than the usual five. This devastated the corn harvest in a way that will lead to widespread scarcity in 2020. The politicization of public sector employment means anyone with a high school degree or above cannot find a job if they do not belong to the governing political party. This blocks half the population. Unemployment is at 80%. A rural laborer earns $5.50 per day.
We talked to Memphis, the 23-year-old daughter of a close friend we’ve known since she was a little girl. Memphis found work in a sweatshop (Maquila) in Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula. She works from 6pm to 6am, four days on, four days off, making $120 per week. She lives in a dangerous, gang-controlled neighborhood, where she must navigate with extreme caution on a daily basis. She told us that thousands of young people like herself work in sweatshop-type clothing factories.
Many consider it safer to risk the treacherous overland journey through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States in hopes of earning higher wages, than living in gang-controlled slums and working in the maquilas in San Pedro Sula, which is currently the murder capital of the world.
We were deeply encouraged to talk with many of the adult children of our original Tierra Nueva agricultural trainers and health workers, who have decided to stay in their villages and raise their families. David’s daughter and her husband run a mobile butcher operation, selling meat to villagers. Another promoter’s son, Noe, has a three-wheeler taxi that he uses to transport customers to and from the smaller villages surrounding their town. Others grow coffee or corn. One runs Tierra Nueva’s coffee farm and mill.
David’s son Wilson earned a decent wage, working for a large palm oil plantation on the North coast of Honduras, an area of increasing violence due to drug trafficking. When his wife’s 20-year-old son from a previous marriage was murdered, they decided to relocate. They are now happily settled into a mountain village, and oversee Tierra Nueva’s specialty coffee farm.
We visited the coffee farm and met and prayed together with a group of twelve or so young adults who were picking the first round of this year’s harvest. Tierra Nueva’s coffee farm provides work for 30 people for the three-month harvest period. Coffee pickers can earn between $8-12 daily, depending on how much they harvest. The farm provides regular employment for 3 full time workers 6-8 others who maintain the farm throughout the year. Consider ordering some highly rated and delicious Tierra Nueva Farm Coffee through Fidalgo Coffee Roasters here, and help provide jobs.
David focuses most of his attention on pastoring people in extreme poverty, Tierra Nueva’s top priority since 2008. Each day we visited families that he pastors on weekly rounds, leading Bible studies, listening to their stories of the challenges they face and praying for them. Check out this December 16 video interview with David here.
In the midst of all the struggle and difficulty God’s love and power was clearly evident. We saw God healing hearts, minds and bodies on multiple occasions. One such example is an older woman named Doña Rosa.
Gracie, David, Andrew and I prayed for Doña Rosa, who hosts a weekly Bible study at her shack on the outskirts of town in one of Tierra Nueva’s Hogares en Transformación (Households in Transformation). She lives with her two daughters and ten or so grand children up a steep trail on a mountainside. She asked for prayer for healing of a painful tumor on her breast, that had kept her from sleeping and was suspected to be cancerous. The day after we prayed the tumor ruptured, her skin went back to normal color and all her pain and swelling left.
In one village where there’s been a lot of family feuds and vengeance killings we prayed for family members grieving the death of their father, who was shot and killed a year ago. One of his sons feels called to serve his community, and is one of the young leaders that David is raising up.
David feels that one of the top priorities in the following year is training people in inner healing prayer and trauma therapy. We hope to return to offer this training sometime in 2020.
Tierra Nueva Honduras needs new supporters to cover the $1,075 monthly budget to keep the ministry moving forward. This money covers fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, refreshments, and a modest salary for David, which allows him to visit households, lead Bible studies, train new leaders, oversee and maintain the coffee farm, and pastor Tierra Nueva’s church in the village of Mal Paso. We also need $7,100 for coffee farm improvements for 2020. If you feel led to give, donate online here. Otherwise send gift earmarked “Honduras” to address at the bottom of this email.
Last week I rediscovered good news together with inmates in the call of Gideon in Judges 6. We began by reading Judges 6:1 with four men, in what would become one of the most unforgettable jail bible studies of the past 25 years.
“Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hands of Midian seven years.”
I describe how the sons of Israel were God’s chosen people, but according to Judges 2:11-12, they were worshipping other gods and rejecting the one and only God—which was what was considered evil in the Lord’s sight.
“Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them.”
“There were lots of higher powers that people prayed to back during the time of the Judges,” is there still some of that going on today?” I ask.
“Yeah, there’s money, drugs, casinos, all kinds of things, and even other gods” someone says, and I add in political leaders, parties, nation.
At this point in the discussion the jail nurse shows up with meds, and three of the four men excuse themselves, telling me to wait as they’ll soon be back. I chat with a young black man with dreads from inner-city Chicago, who tells me he’s never been into God. I invite another older black guy over who’s busy writing in his journal. Soon the others return and we continue with a larger group. A Mexican American guy who’s just come out of the shower joins us at the table right across from me.
“So let’s check out more closely what God actually does here?” I suggest. “Can we re-read Judges 6:1 and see if God punishes them for doing evil?” I ask, trying to bring the others into the story at the same time.
The men expect re-reading Judges 6:1 will confirm the common view that God punishes offenders.
But they have no trouble seeing that the Lord’s “giving the people into the hands of Midian seven years” is like letting them experience the consequences of their actions.
“It’s like if you drink a fifth of Vodka, you’ll have headache,” right? Does God give you a hangover?” I ask.
Everyone agrees that God doesn’t give you a hangover. But maybe God lets us experience the consequences of drinking too much, so we’ll maybe learn from the pain and avoid worse troubles in the future.
In this case, it is the Midianites, not God, who punish them—like prosecutors, judges, the State of Washington, Department of Corrections probation officers, bill collectors and addictions punish our jail population now.
We read in the next two verses how the “power of Midian” gained the upper hand over Israel, causing them to make hideouts in the mountains—caves and strongholds.
“Have any of you ever been a fugitive, having to hide out from law enforcement or enemies?” I ask.
A number of men reminisce about alluding law enforcement or people to whom they owed money, hiding out in the mountains or in far-flung corners of our county. But here they are, finally caught. We read on about more foreign details: how the Midianites came on their camels like locusts, raiding their crops, stealing their sheep, oxen, donkeys– devastating everything they’d labored for.
Let’s see what happens next, I suggest, inviting someone to read Judges 6:6. Someone reads:
“So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried to the Lord.”
“So what do the people finally do?” I ask.
“They cry out to God, like a lot of us to here in the jail when we’re in trouble,” someone says.
“But that’s being a hypocrite, he continues. “You can’t just cry out to God when you’re in trouble and expect him to help you. You gotta be serious about him all the time,” he says, stating the common view.
“Well maybe we can, and it’s okay,” I say. “Let’s see what God does, whether he gets down on them, judging them or calling them hypocrites.”
Someone reads Judges 6:7-9
“Now it came about when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord on account of Midian, that the Lord sent a prophet to the sons of Israel, and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘It was I who brought you up from Egypt and brought you out from the house of slavery. ‘I delivered you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hands of all your oppressors, and dispossessed them before you and gave you their land.”
We talk about how in response to the people’s cries God sends a prophet- a fellow human being who speaks for God. I ask the men what the Lord is like based on what the prophet says about him.
People’s hearts seem to warm towards God as they see that he only talks about how he’s saved them from troubles in the past, liberating them from their oppressors and even giving them their land.
“Have you ever been saved from a near-death experience?” I ask. People nod and they all have stories. “Maybe it was God who saved you. Let’s check out Judges 6:10 and see what God says next.
”And I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed me.”
I share how word-for-word the Hebrew does say “but you didn’t obey, but rather “but you didn’t listen to my voice.” I ask if any of them have had impressions that they shouldn’t do this or that—which they paid attention to and avoided trouble—or ignored and suffered the consequences.
“Yeah, I mostly have ignored God’s voice,” one of the men confesses. “A lot of us have,” he said, including the others, who didn’t deny it. “And that’s why we’re here,” he concluded.
We read on in Judges 6:11, how the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree while Gideon is harvesting wheat in the wine press—out of sight from the Midian raiders. Someone reads verse 12, which states the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him: “the Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.”
I continue talking about how the angel of the Lord, God’s messenger, isn’t judging Gideon or anybody, but the opposite. The angel comes in humble, sitting under an oak tree where he’s working. The angel calls him out for his positive qualities- affirming him as a courageous warrior. Let’s see how he responds.
“Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
I ask if any of them have ever felt like Gideon, wondering where God’s been during hard times, blaming him for abandoning them.
“Yeah for sure,” says the guy to my right. God did nothing to keep my uncle from dying. And now another uncle just died.”
I share how Gideon’s words are a kind of prayer called “complaint,” which we can do. They were leaning in at this point in the Bible study, and two new men had joined the table and were getting up to speed. Let’s see how the angel responds to his complaint, I suggest.
When one of the men read Judges 6:14, it looked to me like darts were going into hearts.
“The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”
I looked around the table and could feel we were at a critical point. “Here the angel puts it back onto Gideon: “you’re the man to liberate the people! Have I not sent you?”
Right at this moment I could feel excitement around the table. Then suddenly the Mexican American man who’d been leaning into the discussion’s eyes rolled back into his head and he let out a cry, rising up and flying backwards, hitting the cement floor behind him full force. When I saw him laying there convulsing, I ran to him and held his head, speaking healing and freedom over him in Jesus name. The man continued to convulse, and inmates began yelling for the guards and pounding on the doors of the cell block, screaming for help.
I continued to pray, until six or seven guards came bursting in, yelling for the inmates to go into their cells and shut their doors, and telling me and another man who was helping him to get away from the man. By the time the correctional officers had gathered around him his convulsions were mostly over and he was opening his eyes, but blood was coming out of his mouth.
Faces were plastered to the cell windows as an officer ushered me out. I offered to go to accompany the man to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me.
The following Thursday I led another Bible study in the same cell block to inmates in the upper tiers. One of the men from the lower tiers where we’d had the eventful Bible study asked me what Scripture we’d been reading when the guy had the seizure, and I passed him a photocopy of Judges 6. He looked like he was afraid to read it, but said he wanted to.
A week later this past Sunday morning I was able to have a one-on-one visit in the jail with the man who’d had the seizure. He told me that he’d never had a seizure before, and that at the hospital the doctor had said he was lucky to be alive, since his scull was fractured and he had internal bleeding. As I listened to him, “Santa Muerte” the Mexican occult figure (Saint Death), kept coming to mind.
“Do you have any experience with the Santa Muerte? I asked.
“How did you know that?” he asked me.
“I told him I didn’t know, but was only asking as the name kept repeating in my head.
He told he that a few weeks before while in the jail he’d gotten desperate and had called a woman who’s really into Santa Muerte, asking her how he could pray to her. He recounted how she’d told him he needed to be really serious about it, and suggested he get on his knees every night at midnight and pray. He’d been doing that for a week or ten days before the eventful Bible study.
I asked him if he felt he had a call on his life, like Gideon—to be a liberator of his people. He told me that he did, and that before he was arrested he had led a change group that included Bible study and conversations about God. As we talked he became convinced that there was a direct connection between what had happened and his praying to Santa Muerte. He shared how this experience was a real wake-up call, and he wanted to know what I thought he should do.
I told him about how Jesus had conquered the power of death, which is called the last enemy in 1 Corinthians 15:26. Praying to death is like praying to Jesus’ enemy. He felt convicted about this and agreed to confess this as sin, ask Jesus for forgiveness, turn towards Jesus and renounce Santa Muerte. He prayed a beautiful prayer of surrender and we prayed for his pounding headache to go away.
I am amazed at how relevant the book of Judges continues to be, as people continue to come under the power of false gods today, and Jesus continues to recruit today’s new Gideons into his liberation movement.
On a Sunday in early October, Mike Neelley and I went into Skagit County Jail together for our weekly services. Five men gathered around a stainless steel table cemented into the floor. We began with a prayer and then I passed out photocopies of 2 Timothy 1:6-14.
I invite someone to read the first verse:
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”
I offer a brief introduction by stating that God has gifts for all of us– spiritual gifts. These gifts are different from natural abilities, like being artistic, perceptive or a good communicator. Spiritual gifts are distinct from learned skills like carpentry, welding, or auto mechanics. They include healing, prophesy, identifying evil spirits that afflict people, faith, and many others.
“Maybe some of you already know of a gift God has given you,” I suggest, looking around at blank faces.
“Or, maybe some of you still don’t know if God has given you a spiritual gift, and you’d like to receive something.”
The men seem to resonate with this option. I go on to share how these gifts enable us to become actively involved in God’s liberating work in the world,
I share how exercising a spiritual gift, like praying for someone to be healed or sharing a prophetic impression requires faith, which means taking risks. I ask someone to read the next verse:
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline.”
Hearing these verses in the heart of the jail, with the TV blaring a football game suddenly made me feel vulnerable. I think I was then and there experiencing the kind of fear or timidity we’d just read about. The next verse seemed to expose and directly address the underlying issue:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling.”
We talk about how natural it is to feel ashamed to believe in God’s liberating actions and of Jesus himself. You can feel like a fool believing in an invisible God.
Yet in the face of this Paul writes as an inmate himself, urging people not be ashamed. After all Jesus has saved us, and we need saving. Still when we respond to his call we do enter into a kind of suffering, which the apostle acknowledges. But Christ Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Suddenly I remember that the men hadn’t seemed aware that they had received a spiritual gift. I suggest that Mike and I would love to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal each person’s spiritual gift, and that we could gladly ask God to give new gifts.
The men all seemed eager to for whatever was going to happen next. Mike and I looked at each other and began to go for it, taking turns to speak prophetically over each man around the table.
Each man seemed to soak up the words of affirmation that Mike and I offered, agreeing with the gifts that we identified or spoke over them. We could see new hope ignited, there in this place of bleakness where negativity, harsh labels and curses abound.
Only one man joined us in “P pod”—a Mexican American guy with stars tattooed on his cheeks, barely visible under long curly black hair parted in the middle. He is a man of deep conviction, born of suffering through years in prison.
Mike and I were moved by how easy it was to identify people’s spiritual gifts in the jail setting, and how precious and welcomed God’s perspective is among those who feel downtrodden.
We wrap up our time with each group by encouraging the men to step our in faith—fanning into flame their gifts. We encourage them to not let fear paralyze them, but God’s power, love and disciple.
Paul’s final words seem the perfect charge: “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”
Mike and I find ourselves being deeply encouraged by this Scripture and our experience with the men. I share this message at Tierra Nueva’s service that day, and the work continues.
For further reflections on the gifts of the Spirit, read “Guerrilla tactics: signs, wonders, justice and mercy,” chapter nine in Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit.
This past Thursday evening in the jail I was struck by the high level of both human suffering and openness. In one pod where everyone was in lockdown the correctional officer allowed men in the upper tiers who were interested in a Bible study to come out and meet with me.
As we talked I learned that most of the seven men were the ages of our children—28, 26 and 24. The youngest man was 22 and oldest was 34 followed by 31. I talk about the blind man’s cry at the entrance of Jericho: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
The men look weary, but soak up my encouragement to cry out to Jesus like the blind man, and dare to believe that he will stop and listen to them.
I ask the men what they would say if Jesus asked them: “what do you want me to do for you?”
They say things like: “keep off of drugs,” “success in my court,” and “help for my family.” One particularly soft-spoken man says he can’t imagine asking Jesus for anything for himself as he feels so unworthy. Another man says he wants to believe but finds it really hard to have any faith. As I pray for the guys I want to hear each of their stories. But the entire lower level of cells is full of men needing attention.
The lower level of this cell block is made of gang-involved men, most of whom I know. I spend the next 30 minutes going from cell to cell, talking and praying with guys through the cracks in their cell door.
A number of the men were alone in a cell with four bunks. I was struck by the barrenness of their setting and their loneliness and vulnerability. I slip a copy of my new book, Guerrilla Bible Studies: Surprising Encounters with God, under one man’s cell door. He asks me if Gracie can visit his partner in the woman’s pod, who was just sentenced to 18 months in prison. We pray for her and the six kids she’s leaving behind.
In cells were there are several inmates, the men gather around the crack in the door and share their sorrowful requests. I pray the men’s requests, and for the Holy Spirit to fill their cells, and bring them comfort. Three of the cells had only Spanish-speaking men, whose faces seem marked by deprivation. They are particularly humble and moved to tears to be ministered to in Spanish.
I leave the pod around 9:30pm, feeling jet lagged after having returned earlier in the week from three weeks in Beirut, France and Belfast. “Should I visit the mental health pod?” I wonder. I think of one young man I know who had been healed last year of paralysis and pain from a crippling gunshot wound. I missed seeing him and thought he might be in the next pod, and decide to go see.
The moment I enter the pod I am greeted by Isaac, who says loudly: “whoa that’s crazy Bob, I was just telling my cousin about you, and he’s really open to God.”
He introduces me to his second cousin, who has a large 2 tattooed on each cheek. Five or six young men gather around a table with me and we talk. I ask about the meaning of 22, and am told it was 22nd street, where it appeared most of these men normally lived.
Isaac was coughing like he had the last time I’d seen him, and I ask him about it. “Oh it’s nothing, it goes away,” he said, brushing it off. I ask him if it was related to his gunshot wound, and he said that the bullet had in fact penetrated his lungs. I suggest that we pray for him before the night was over, and he says that’d be cool. Then a young gang-involved man with facial tattoos named Chris pulls up his pant leg and shows me a wound that was starting to scab over:
“The police sicked their service dog on me,” he said. “When they took me to the ER (emergency room) the nurse asked if I was in pain. I told her my whole life is in pain!” He reminds me that we’d talked for over an hour a few months back when we’d run into each other in the train station parking lot, saying that this conversation had meant a lot to him.
A young man beside him said a police dog had bit into his scalp, but that all the pain had gone away after he’d received prayer.
At this point I was so moved that I stood up and asked if I could just go around and pray for each of the men. They agree and I go around, putting a hand on each man and blessing them, praying whatever came out on their behalf—for healing, comfort, success in their court, and the love of God to find them…
I sit back down and asked Isaac’s cousin about the special meaning for him of the 22 he’d tattooed on cheeks.
Isaac, who himself has 22 tattooed over his left eyebrow, explains that 22 helps them remember Fabian, a young man who died after shooting himself accidentally in the head back in 2012. Isaac pulls up his shirt and shows me how he has his friend’s name and the date of his death tattooed in cursive script on his back. Each of these men, all under 26, talked with fondness and sorrow about their fallen friend. I noted their sadness and said that it was important they know that Jesus shares their grief and sees and knows their pain.
At this point they began mentioning others who had died, at first using their gang names (Random, Little Mister, Trickster, Locs, Creepy, Midget…). But when I ask if I could write down the details to commemorate them, they give their friends’ actual names. They mention by name twelve young men, who had died of drive-by shootings, heroine overdoses, car accidents, a heart attack, and from being shot in the face.
Naming their fallen friends and me writing them down seems to bring some noticeable comfort, even as the reality of these tragic deaths left me deeply grieved by the weight of sorrow that afflicts these young men, warehoused in our jails and prisons.
I think of how God heard the cries of his people enslaved in Egypt and I’m so glad this is the Father we worship. I feel a special closeness as I read Exodus 2:23-25.
“And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. So God heard their groaning; and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2:23-25).
I find comfort in many of the Psalms that tell of God’s heart for prisoners.
“For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his who are prisoners” (Ps 69:33).
I pray Psalm 79:11 now as I think of them: “Let the groaning of the prisoner come before you; according to the greatness of your power preserve those who are doomed to die.”
I wonder again what it means that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jesus and comes upon us to bring freedom to the prisoners, and liberation to those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).