This story, on the surface, is a testimony of how God did wonderful and miraculous things using a few of us willing participants in His plan for a beautiful awakening in Lataculpa and Pujili Ecuador. But this story is, at its heart, a testimony of the sweetness of Papa and the richness of His love, and how we are sometimes blessed with what I call beautiful interruptions. I will share some amazing truths I’ve learned and testify to the goodness of God.
To enhance your reading, I absolutely have to give you some context. If I don’t, then you will be only partially intrigued. It is like when a proud grandparent whips out a huge family photo and begins to wax poetically about the folks in the photo. You want to be interested, but because you don’t know anyone in the photo, you have to work at being only marginally interested. So bear with me, and I will give you the setting as painlessly as possible.
1.) Steve: Steve is an evangelist. Steve has an insane gift in preaching the gospel and touching people’s lives with the healing hand of God. Steve has been doing international ministry and preaching the gospel for many decades. You will learn more of him as you read along. But let me give you a quick look: he was born into a Jewish household in New York and all the nuances of Jewishdom (is that a word?) come with the package; his nickname is “The Jumpin’ Jew”; Steve is punctual, intense, and focused. Steve has a New Yorker accent and demeanor. This covers the entire spectrum of his persona, whether preaching a crusade in front of thousands of people or having a casual conversation at dinner. Steve is, in essence, a fiery volcano of pure, undefiled gospel. He can erupt in the Spirit and thousands of people fall to their knees in front of God, and he has a steady lava flow of the weight of the gospel that oozes into every life he comes into contact with. Some people adore Steve and some simply can’t take the heat. Enough said.
2.) Javier: Javier is the coordinator for all that is done. Javier and Steve have been working together in international ministry since the 80’s. While most of us were learning the latest disco moves on the dance floor (in front of the mirror counts too), Steve and Javier were preaching the gospel in places like Germany, Africa, Communist Russia, Argentina, and too many list. I can assure you that the countries they haven’t been is a much shorter list than those they have visited with God’s message of salvation! Javier is a machine. He has the gift of Helps and Administration. If you ever see Javier without his tablet and phone, I will give you a million dollars…it is very rare. You would have the same odds of seeing a jaguar sneak out from the cover of a jungle to drink from the Amazon. His job and ministry, from my perspective, looks impossible. Javier is also passionate for God’s heart and making disciples. One other thing about Javier’s ministry: it never stops! He is always on the phone, meeting with pastors and leaders, coordinating multiple schedules from wherever he is at the time, and generally doing everything…except sleep of course…If you ever have the honor of seeing his heart behind the frenetic appearance, you will see a man desperately in love with God and with people. Javier, the child of God, is just as unique as his gift!
3.) Shelby: That’s me. I am the green-horn, the private first class, and the one learning the ropes. My gift is teaching. I have a love for the Word and pouring out the wisdom the Spirit shares with me. I am also a micro guy. What I mean is that someone like Steve is the macro guy and I am the micro guy; Steve is big picture and ministers to many at one time, and I am focused on the individual, one-on-one part of the equation. For the most part, Steve is like the view of the Grand Canyon from above, the beauty of the vista perspective. I am the view of the Grand Canyon from below, in the river, climbing on the rocks, and finding beauty in the details of the terrain. Both are crucial. I like my place in the equation. I also have the honor of making the most mistakes! Steve and Javier have given me a ton of grace along the way, and I think they do it to keep me around for entertainment.
4.) Holy Spirit: Holy Spirit is present at all times and is quirky in His own right. We all laugh sometimes reflecting on the truth that Spirit does what He wants, when He wants, and how He wants with whomever He wants. For some strange reason, He never consults us on His plans or asks for our opinions, but is also quick to give grace in our feeble attempts at bringing order to the onslaught of seeming chaos! His unpredictability at first is irritating, then becomes humorous, and then evolves into immense awe. No matter how long you have partnered with Spirit, He never ceases to catch you off-guard. I wish I could say that you get used to this part of His personality, but according to Steve, that simply is not the case. I remember asking Steve on my first trip with him what I could expect. I asked him the when’s and the where’s and what is expected of me, and Steve shot me a stern glance as only Steve can do, and replied, “Just go with the flow man.” I had no clue what he was talking about. Who does that? At the end of our first trip together, I realized that the person who invented the roller-coaster was a Christian. A roller-coaster ride is a perfect manifestation of the partnership with Holy Spirit. Well, almost. To make a more accurate description, you would have to ride the roller coaster blind-folded. The way Holy Spirit works in the individual and works in ministry are somewhat similar but are also worlds apart. He reveals Jesus to us in a sweet way individually and in that way, His unpredictability is quickly identified; but when He is revealing Jesus to many people, for lack of a better description, He “kicks it up a notch”. God is amazing to watch! But He is quite challenging to work with…just keeping it real here!
1.) The Crusade: We coordinate crusades in cities. Local pastors and leaders help arrange a city-wide crusade. These crusades are usually at night in a public area like a park, the town square or another public venue like a soccer arena or any public gathering place. The crusade usually lasts 2-3 days depending on the population and location. The crusade is centered on the preaching of the gospel and afterwards, a time for healings of all shapes and sizes. There is usually music and celebration first, including dancing and vibrant worship followed by Steve preaching the gospel and inviting people to receive the free gift of salvation. After the call to salvation, there is a call to healing. We have seen and been part of countless miracles in this part of the crusade. Afterwards, we eat dinner with brothers and sisters either at a restaurant or at someone’s home. Either way, I have yet to have a bad dinner in South or Central America…anywhere. And because we fast every day, dinner becomes especially magical to me!
2.) Pastor Meetings: We work with local pastors and leaders to not only preach the gospel, but also to equip them to handle the new tidal wave of born-again Christians. This part is crucial because salvation is the first step. The next steps involve making connections, discipling new believers, and providing strategies to not allow the new child of God to “slip through the cracks”. Another major part of the Pastor Meetings is to build unity in the local body of churches. If churches work together, the results are incredible, but without unity, the charge becomes exponentially more challenging. The last part to the Pastor Meetings is to impart vision. By the leading of the Holy Spirit, we seek to give leaders a fresh perspective and a new vision for God’s plans in their city. We invite them to take the next step together, together with us and together with one another.
3.) Church Meetings: Usually on a Sunday, we each split up and minister to an individual church as the guest preacher or teacher. This allows us to touch the local congregations in a more intimate environment. This is the part I love to do.
4.) Small Group Meetings: This part just kind of happens along the way. This could be a conversation over dinner, over a cup of coffee or juice, or just a walk through the city streets. It can be with anyone at any time. This part is spontaneous and where I find the title of this story, beautiful interruptions.
Time and Place
Quito, Latacunga, and Pujili Ecuador
September 15-19, 2016
The preface to these short stories will be the big story. For me to tell you everything that happened in Ecuador over the four days that we were there, would require a small book. So, I will give you the condensed but charming highlights.
One thing to understand before preceding is that we go where there is the most hunger for the gospel. The Americas are especially receptive to the gospel, but sometimes the demand swells in certain areas or countries. This hunger for the gospel many times, if not all times, dictates where we go. Ecuador is ripe for a revival; it is palpable.
The proof that Quito is ready for an outpouring is shown in the attendance of our first Pastors Meeting. This was initially referred to as a “coffee meeting”. We expected a good show of unity in Quito, but we didn’t expect over 100 being there! Even the head over all of the evangelical churches in Quito was in attendance. After Steve exhorted them, he had a call to prayer and everyone sincerely began to repent and accept a new vision for Quito. It was truly inspiring. You know when people are sincere, and you could cut the intensity with a knife!
The first night of the crusade at Pujili was packed. I mean sardines kind of packed. What a vibrant and beautiful people, and lots of children. I have never seen so many children. I mean, as you walk, as you dine, as you drive, and at the crusade as well, children, beautiful children everywhere! So the place was packed. And more than 1000 people gave their life to Christ. There were a lot of healings and many were set free. The challenging part of this first night was that many in attendance did not speak Spanish. For the Andean natives, the predominant language is Quechua. What this meant was that we needed two interpreters. That was challenging, but it was a success.
The Pastors Meeting the next morning was in a neighboring city called Latacunga. This larger city is close to Pujili and about an hour and half from Quito. Our hotel was located here in Latacunga as well. This was very productive, and we encouraged more people to come out to the crusade that night. We did two nights in Pujili and this night was the last night.
The Saturday night crusade was even more packed than the night before. I honestly didn’t think that was possible. Ironically, on our drive to the Friday night crusade the night before, Steve had looked out the window as we approached the venue and asked, “Where are all the people?” And I jokingly replied, “They are all at the crusade!” What was meant to be at least partially in jest turned out to be prophetic; everyone was at the Friday night crusade! Tonight, the place was actually more packed than the night before, brimming with precious people. We got there an hour earlier than the night before and were treated to some local talent in the form of music, dance, and traditional demonstrations. It was unreal. The entire hour before Steve preached, my face was plastered with a huge smile. It was one of those smiles that hurts after about 30 minutes, and then it is just freezes in place, caught in the middle of pleasure and pain. Many more gave their life to Christ that night, and many were healed. It was awesome watching Steve preach in the poncho that was given to him as a gift. Priceless. The Lord used Steve in a mighty way, and I almost gave my life to Christ again it was so powerful!
Sunday morning, Steve preached in Quito and I preached in Latacunga. Steve’s particular church was blessed to have a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Many were healed in miraculous ways and just as many were slain in the Spirit. At my particular church, I did my thing. I sometimes just break with tradition and go super informal. I move from the podium to a chair at floor level and ask everyone to gather around in a tight semi-circle. I like to get up close and personal and just have a conversation from my heart. At the end of my teaching, some gave their life to Christ for the first time and almost everyone made the decision to go 100%, all-in with Jesus our King. It was an outpouring of pure love; I got blessed, they got blessed, and Papa smiled.
The Beautiful Interruptions
Saturday morning, as we were getting ready for the pastor’s conference, Steve knocked on my door about 30 minutes before our ride was scheduled to pick us up. He said he was going downstairs to get some juice. I was still getting ready and taking my time. By the time I had finished shaving and now tying my tie, Steve reappeared at my door with a huge smile on his face and eyes as big and round as saucers. My door was open so Steve walked right in and announced, “You won’t believe what just happened!”
I looked at him in surprise because it is somewhat rare to see Steve so giddy with excitement. “What on earth, Steve?”
“An entire soccer team just gave their lives to the Lord!”
I assumed he was over exaggerating, but before I could respond, he gave me the entire story.
“Apparently one of the players from the soccer team that stayed here last night overheard our conversation at dinner and knew we were ministers of the gospel. So, when I went down to get juice just a few minutes ago, I saw the entire team eating breakfast. Holy Spirit whispered to me that I needed to speak to them, but I kind of shrugged it off. But as I sat down, the player that overheard our conversation last night came up to me and asked me to pray over the team. And that is exactly what I planned to do. But, instead of praying over the team, I began to preach the gospel! I mean, it was a quick and condensed version, but obviously, the Spirit was eager to move some hearts. Well, a long story short, after I finished, I asked if anyone would like to give their life to Christ. And you know what? Everyone raised their hand! Even the coaches raised their hands. So, everyone on the team gave their life to Christ as we prayed and as an afterthought, I prayed over their game!”
I stood in the mirror with my tie half-tied, frozen in disbelief. I turned and smiled at Steve. I answered his testimony, “Well, Steve, I guess I need to be ready 30 minutes earlier every morning so not to miss any miracles!” I laughed and we both praised God for His uncanny timing.
This was a beautiful interruption.
That same day, after the conference and after having juice together with the ministry team, I decided to have a “walk and talk” with the Lord. A walk and talk is simply one of my favorite ways to talk (pray) to my King. We stroll along together and simply talk about the day, what is upcoming, and sometimes even small talk. I do most of the talking, but sometimes the Spirit has much to say. This particular Saturday, I was doing most of the talking and just taking in the sights and sounds of the city. I don’t know if most people understand the whole concept of “Christ in us”; to really grasp this truth, let me give you a simple explanation. Jesus can see what we see, smell what we smell, laugh with us, and enjoy where we are together. Love works this way as well! When Christ is “in you”, you love people; you simply cannot help yourself! Jesus loves people desperately, and when He is active in your life, He loves through your heart. That is as simple of an explanation as I can give. Anyway, at some point I sat down in the town square and just soaked up the atmosphere.
As I was peacefully enjoying a sunny Saturday in the square, I was approached by a young boy. This young man was about 8 years old, had a little baseball cap on, and the fingers wrapped around his shoeshine box were stained darker than his skin. I just so happened to have some leather shoes on, and I knew he was coming up to me to offer his professional services. My Spanish is good enough to let him know that if he were to shine my shoes, he would need to make change for a 20-dollar bill. I asked if he could do that, and he seemed a bit rattled. Twenty dollars was a very large bill to have to make change. But he quickly rallied; I could almost see the lightbulb go off above his head! He looked across the square and yelled at his friend to come over. This young man that answered his call was a bit older, maybe 12, and as he made his way to where we were, another young man, probably a tad younger than my professional shoe-shine before me, joined the older boy as they crossed the square. They had a short meeting of the minds and figured out a way to make change for the twenty.
The boy who scored a shoeshine from this gringo went to work in a frenzy. As he was working away, the older boy began to ask me about where I was from, what I was doing in Ecuador, and if I had any children. This began a glorious conversation with the three boys. We shared many laughs together, I shared Jesus with them, and we had a blast! Afterwards, I asked if I could take their picture. I have never seen such wide smiles; they were honored to be important enough to be in a picture with a missionary from the United States! So, we all posed for a “selfie” and then it was back to business; time to settle up.
The entire time we were having conversation and I was getting an incredible shoeshine, I was thinking of how to bless these precious little people. I had a plan. Each of the boys stated their love for Jesus, so I didn’t feel the unction to be in ministry mode. I gave them an offer. I told them the deal was this: the guy who shined my shoes gets ten dollars and the other two get five dollars each, but there was a contingency clause. As I stated the terms, they were all ears, each staring at me like there would be terms that they simply could not live with.
I said as seriously as possible, “Ok, here is the deal guys. I will only give you this money if you promise me something.”
They looked at me with intense focus and waited for the terms. I left them hanging for probably too long, as I was enjoying messing with them and seeing the looks on their faces! “You have to promise me that you will not shine any more shoes…until…until…you go over to that lady on the corner and get yourselves some ice cream!”
They all three burst into laughter and agreed as the smiles on their faces made my heart leap with joy. They each gave me a hug in appreciation, which otherwise would have been awkward, but after our encounter, we were the best of friends.
As they began to make their way to the ice cream lady, I yelled out, “Te veo en el cielo!” (“See you in heaven!”) And they turned and gave me one last smile.
This was a beautiful interruption.
My last little testimony actually comes from my trip back to the States. Travel days from South America are almost surreal; each trip offers different scenarios of torture for this claustrophobic man! Just so you know, I am not afraid of heights, spiders, snakes, clowns (well, maybe a little afraid of clowns), or anything else, but I am notoriously claustrophobic. So being on airplanes takes on a ritualistic amalgamation of strategies. I simply refuse to be in the middle seat, and more than one international stewardess knows this well! So, it is either window or aisle. And I have a pair of Beats, noise-cancelling headphones that are my necessary companion on all flights, international or not. The other strategies I will not mention because you might never read what I write ever again if you knew the pathetic coping mechanisms I use to not go “postal” while thirty thousand feet above the earth.
On this particular flight back from Ecuador, we had to catch a red-eye…yes, the dreaded red-eye! We left Quito at 11:36pm. And you guessed it, the flight was completely full and I was placed in a middle seat. After stating my case for impending insanity at the thought of being in the middle for 6 hours on a red-eye, the stewardess came back with what I assumed was great news. She had moved me to an aisle seat about 10 rows back. Awesome!
As we took off and then reached cruising altitude, the pilot turned the cabin lights off so people could get some sleep. That is another thing; I have never been able to sleep on a plane. It always makes me particularly irritated when Steve asks me, “So, were able to get any sleep?” He knows I can’t sleep on the plane! But, he eagerly asks me this anyway, like maybe a truly supernatural miracle had happened and I actually was able to sleep. The problem, I quickly realized, was that this seat didn’t recline because it was in an exit row. When the lights went out, the guy next to me got very, very comfortable; so much so, that he basically invaded my space. Good grief! I tried and tried to sleep to no avail. Maybe because the man next to me threw his leg over into my “foot space”, maybe because I had become a human teddy bear, and maybe because the curse of being unable to sleep on a plane, I tossed and turned and flipped and dipped and contorted in an endless quest to become at least comfortable. Many travelers know what I’m talking about when I say I got creative. I tried the ole turning the food tray into a head rest, I tried the ole lay your forehead on the seat in front of you, and I tried every possible configuration imaginable, all for naught. I passed in and out of consciousness while trying to watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, and generally try to keep myself occupied!
When the cabin lights were turned back on as we prepared for landing, I was partially ecstatic and partially horrified; I was excited to be getting off the plane and horrified at what I must look like! My eyes were the color of sangria, my hair was matted in three or four directions, and my breath even bothered me. And oh, the joy of the impending date with Immigration and Customs!
Stumbling through the Atlanta airport, half asleep, I arrived at the Delta gate back to Knoxville. This flight is usually less than 30 minutes…AMEN!!! So, we embarked and were ready to go. I thought. As happens more often than not, the plane sat on the tarmac for longer than the actual flight. As I sat and begged God for mercy, my pity party was interrupted by the woman who was seated next to me. She, in way too chipper a tone asked me, “So, where have you been and what do you do?”
I looked over and saw a woman in her late 50’s, maybe early 60’s with a smile on her face. I told her about our mission to Ecuador and she seemed genuinely interested. The reason one can tell if a person is really interested is if they follow up questions with more questions. She listened to the answers to her questions, and I returned the favor by asking her where she had been and what she had been into lately. You have to remember here that I am absolutely exhausted at this point in my journey and am surprised that my appearance didn’t dissuade her from continuing our dialog! But she began to lay out her recent trip to Virginia to care for her ailing mother. This is when the beauty emerged!
She began to give me the details about her mother: a Christian woman whom everyone adores, a caregiver even in the worst of situations, and a woman dedicated to being a light of love in everyone’s life. She told me that her mother had befriended and given advice to all of her doctors and nurses, and that some of the nurses had become quite attached to this woman of God. Now, you have to realize that the conversation just got interesting to me in a very real way. Recently, I have lost two women of God that attended my church and Bible study group class. Both of these women were very similar to what this woman on the plane described as her mother’s demeanor. Both Marie and Betty had gone on to be with the Lord, and the hole that they left in my life was substantial. I have never in my life met people like Betty and Marie. They loved people beyond what I could even imagine, they prayed for me and I for them constantly, and they really were concerned about my life, my children, and my ministry. In the sincerest way, I have to say definitively that both Marie and Betty are my heroes! I told Marie one time in my Bible class that “when I grow up, I want to be like you!” And Betty was so full of joy; I never saw her without a smile on her face. Both these women carried an infectious love and joy and longing for Christ and heaven, that they literally changed the atmosphere when they occupied a room. So, as this lady on the plane told me about her mother, I was all ears because I knew exactly the type of Christian woman she was describing in her mother. In fact, at one point I stopped her and said, “Ok, wait a second, let’s play a little game. Tell you what, I know your mother; in fact, I know her so well, I am going to tell you all about her!”
As I began to describe what her mother was like, I was drawing on my experience from Marie and Betty. And as I progressed in my description, the woman began to cry gently. But these were not tears of pain, but rather tears of affirmation. In that moment, she realized that I appreciated and loved her mother without ever having to have met her personally. I was simply describing Jesus in her, and I now knew what that looked like from my years of knowing Marie and Betty. The woman’s tears steadily flowed and she reached her hand over to my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “Bless you, my friend.”
Somewhere along the way back to Knoxville, deep in conversation, I realized that this woman was terrified of flying. I noticed our conversation got especially intense at take-off and landing, and I even saw her jump in her seat when the “bang” of the landing gear was tucked back into the belly of the plane. She was embarrassed by her fear of flying and tried to hide it as best she could. I, on the other hand, simply ignored her little gasps every time the plane bucked and tried to make her feel at ease during the flight. I never let on that I noticed her fear, and I know she appreciated that. Upon landing and disembarking, we exchanged good-byes and smiles and continued our individual marches through time. In a strange but beautiful paradox, the two of us are now forever connected as brothers and sisters in a kingdom we know little about.
This was a beautiful interruption.
Once at home, I began to reflect upon the mission trip. Holy Spirit literally tackled me with an onslaught of emotions and clarity. Sometimes when you are in “the heat of the moment” on a mission, you miss the gravity of what God is doing through you because you are so focused on the task at hand. Reflection afterwards yields a bounty of profound truths. The truths that hit me square in the heart were, number one, always be ready for a beautiful interruption; two, learning to love is a process and the ultimate quest of a Christian; and three, true heroes go largely unnoticed except to the people whose lives they transect.
Sometimes just being with a person is enough. Sometimes just listening to someone is the perfect act of love. Sometimes a smile from someone you just met and free ice cream is as close to heaven as one can get on this side of eternity. And sometimes, God just wants to remind us that living in the moment is living eternal life.