Three years ago today, my wife and I took a long drive from Lima, Peru to the outskirts of a few desert towns on the western coast of the country. Once we arrived in the obscure town we were destined for, we took a short ride to the backside– past normal civilization, passing gullies filled with burning garbage, and arrived at a small compound with towering walls and barbed wire.
Interestingly enough, I remember thinking about something Jesus talked about during my drive there. When Jesus talked about hell, he used a word that referred to a place outside the city where all the garbage was thrown and burned– it was an actual, real place called Gehenna (γέεννα) which was located outside ancient Jerusalem.
As I looked out the window and watched the smoke rise up from burning garbage, wild dogs scrounging for a meal, human beings living among this wreckage, I remember thinking to myself, “ahh, this is what Jesus was describing when he talked about hell“.
Hell was a place in the middle of nowhere, a place where children were literally locked up behind steel doors, where adults were few and where the love of a mom and dad was only a dream.
Hell, for me, became traveling to a Peruvian orphanage.
Yet, it was embracing what can happen when one is willing to let go of the comforts of heaven in order to visit souls in hell, that taught me the meaning of life.
Growing up, I used to believe that God had a plan for my life. But somewhere along my own dusty road, I had stopped believing that… until she jumped into my arms.
Three years ago today, my Johanna jumped into my arms, and I immediately realized that she was God’s purpose– she was God’s plan for me. She’s taught me everything I need to know about life, and most importantly, she’s taught me everything I need to know about God.
Other parents may experience their child’s first words years down the road, and it’s usually something like “daadaaa”. For me, I experienced my child’s first words within moments of meeting her. They were:
“Are you strong? Can I feel your muscles? Will you protect me? Is it okay if we leave the orphanage right now? I don’t want to spend another night here. I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
Today I also celebrate the fact that God is still in the business of restoration.
In three years, she’s gone from waiting for a family in a compound behind hell– destined for a life of poverty, illiteracy, and exploitation– to having a family, an education, a future… and being a sold out Jesus follower who has a passion for the broken, the forgotten, and the outcast. In fact, this past year she told me that she wanted “to be a friend of Jesus her whole life”, and asked me if I would baptize her– which was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Johanna has taught me all I need to know about so many things in life.
You see, when we think about things like hell, heaven, purpose and meaning, I think we often look too far away. None of those concepts are distant things– but present realities in our own life. Hell can be a present reality in the here and now.
But so can purpose and meaning.
So can restoration and new life.
It can all be present, right now.
My friends- please don’t look off into the distance for these things. I believe that if you look at what is right in front of you, you’ll find elements of hell that you can mitigate. I believe you’ll find meaning for life, and God’s purpose for you…
I even think you can find small ways to bring heaven into the here-and-now.
My purpose and meaning? Her name is Johanna Grace (God is Gracious), and serving her is why God put Benjamin L. Corey on this planet.
And today, is her “gotcha day”.