In June of 1977 I was appointed to the Carolina Charge. The Carolina Charge had four churches, and we lived in a parsonage next to one of them. My three year old son, noticing the many potholes in the roads in the Carolina community, named the road the Carolina Bumpity Road. As he put it, “Daddy, this road makes my head say yes.” We had some truly great times there, but I’ll pass over them for now because this is just about my experiences with God.
I began to notice that God was with me – or rather I was with Him – in the ministry. Many times I saw people healed. I’m not saying it was because of my prayers; I’m saying that I got to see God at work, because very few of those in the hospital only had me praying for them. The other thing I noticed was that when there was an emergency, God helped me get there quicker. A young church member somehow bumped and broke a bone in the back of her head playing touch football and the ambulance came and took her to Tupelo. I made a deal with God not to break the speed limit because I didn’t think that would be His style, and when I arrived in my car in Tupelo, strangely enough, all the lights were green. When I got to the elevator to go to Intensive Care, the elevator opened before I could press the button. As a result of things like this, I began to worry. Was I getting puffed up? If I did, wouldn’t that be bragging?
And what about when people liked my sermons? I didn’t need to worry there about being puffed up! The Lord would enter my thoughts about five minutes after I preached and the service was over, and He would let me know exactly what I left out, or where I embroidered a story too much. In fact, I believe He is letting me write this right now, if and only if I keep it as accurate as possible. Also, I think He is letting me write this to remind me of how frail and stupid I have been all during my 40 years of ministry. He is also letting me write this to teach me a lesson: He did all these things, and He has just been kind enough to let me watch Him at work.
The thing is, any preacher is in danger of becoming a Pharisee at any time. In fact, the closer you are to God and the better you are at following His will, the more you are in danger. This is why the Lord has let me have flat tires, spend too much money on junk food and then be short of money, and so on. He doesn’t like pride, God doesn’t. God has had to jerk me up and get me on my knees all my life in the ministry. If you get nothing else from my writings, you should get this: no preacher, no bishop, no man or woman of God is any more important to the Lord than YOU are yourself. He doesn’t have favorites, except in the sense that He promises to favor you when you obey Him. And often I think He can use the prodigals more than He can the elder sons, because the elder sons get stupid thinking that all their work gives them special status. It doesn’t. (I want to be country and say, It shore don’t!)
One afternoon in 1980, I was in my study at the church. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about, but somehow my mind filled up with thoughts of Bolivia. I had promised God that He was my absolute Boss, and my mind turned to the idea that seven years had gone by since our time in Bolivia. A thought popped into my head; or, if you prefer, God spoke to me. He said, in essence, “It’s about time you went back to the foreign mission field, don’t you think?” That began a conversation of several months while my wife and I sought, and got, more guidance.
The upshot of this conversation was that we did go back. I let my district superintendent know I wouldn’t be returning to the Carolina Charge. Some people let us stay for a year in a little two room cottage for free. We found South America Mission and were accepted as members of a church planting team going to Santa Marta, Colombia. I got a job working on a machine that ground compressor crankshafts for refrigerators in a plant in Verona, Mississippi, named Tecumseh. I worked there a year while visiting churches every Sunday.
I laid a fleece before God. I needed assurance that I was in God’s will. My fleece was that we would not ask for a dime from any church; our only message was that we planned to go to South America to help start a church, and we were there to ask if perhaps God was calling anyone to the mission field as He had called us. If God was leading us, then He would move in people’s hearts to support us. The other prayer I prayed (we prayed) was if we were going the way God wanted, we asked Him to open a door for us that no one could shut; and if we weren’t going in the right direction, we asked God to shut the door so no one could open it. These two understandings with God gave my wife and me the assurance we needed.
When we left for Colombia, our daughter was 4 years old and our son was 7. Over the next four years, they went to schools where the lessons were in Spanish. They played in the neighborhood with kids who only spoke Spanish. We had many adventures there, some of which I have already recounted in previous chapters. One thing I have not yet covered adequately is how afraid I was, going out into the streets to preach the gospel and win people for Christ using only a foreign language that I was still learning.
We were in a dangerous city. There was on average a murder every day, and the newspapers showed all the gruesome details. Our kids were in danger of being kidnapped for ransom, and our Mission made us promise not to pay a ransom. The reason was that missionaries all over the world would be more liable to being kidnapped if any of us paid a ransom. Chester Bitterman, a Mennonite missionary with Wycliff Bible Translators, was shot in the heart by M-19 in Bogota the year before we arrived in Santa Marta. The country’s communist terrorists, M-19, had demanded a ransom, saying he was with the CIA. Wycliff refused to pay, and they shot him and left his body in an abandoned bus. His family donated an ambulance to his village, gaining much support for Wycliff and turning the tables on the terrorists. God got the glory in the end.
Part of my job was to start Bible studies. First I went door to door, giving out little Bible study pamphlets from a Christian company in Georgia called Source of Light. Then I invited my students, mostly youth, to gather in one of their homes so we could study the Bible together. They got three diplomas for each of the three levels of study, and they dearly loved those diplomas. I started several of these Bible studies in the Almendros neighborhood, one of the poorer sections of town, and also where thieves, pickpockets, drug addicts, and the Colombian Mafia lived. My landlady, Carmen de Barros, was high in the Mafia, as I have recounted elsewhere.
All of this danger drastically affected my prayer life. Many times, I would leave the house just after dark, quite anxious. At that time I didn’t know that my landlady the Mafiosa had told all the criminals in the neighborhood to leave me alone. I didn’t know that, so my prayers were quite fervent. I would say, “Lord Jesus, I don’t want to go out there tonight unless You lead the way.” I would imagine Jesus walking just ahead of me. Funny thing, though; by the time my Bible study was over, I was so carefree and high from having a good time with my students young and old, I was totally unafraid. This repeated itself over and over: I would leave the house very anxious and return home giddy with happiness. If I had to go out there right now and do it again, I would still be petrified. I had some of my students murdered, and grieved over their dead bodies. You would be stupid not to be scared after that.
I have already talked elsewhere about my narrow misses with death in Colombia. However, some of my encounters with God were much more mundane. For example, when we first arrived, our Mission (South America Mission, which we called SAM) had taken out their fees and expenses and left us with not even enough money to pay the rent! I had a little discussion with the Lord about it, and it went like this. Me: “Lord, we have tithed every day of our marriage. We have trusted You and are walking by faith that You will take care of us!” The Lord: “You aren’t tithing.” Me: “What? We give 12% of the offerings to us to SAM as their payment for handling our finances. They are a Mission agency. Isn’t that tithing?” The Lord: “Nope. You are employing SAM. You are merely paying SAM for working on your behalf. That’s not tithing.” Ooops. But the Lord was right. After checking with the Lord some more, I borrowed some money from another missionary, Amby Powell. Our very next remittance from our supporters was double what we needed! I paid Amby back in full. Needless to say, we tithed off the top, even before giving SAM their 12%. And we never ran short again over the entire four years we were in Santa Marta.
Truly, God watches after fools, children, and missionaries. Please keep that in mind if you plan to do stuff with God: He’s going to point out how childish and foolish you are at every turn. As we say in the coffee shop, “If you can’t take it, you can’t stay!” His goal is to grow us all up.