Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
Unleashing the Power of the Spirit Within You
By Bren Hughes
Night would soon be rolling in across the junglesome mountains of Panama.
The air was humid and heavy that summer. But as the sun began to resign itself to sliding behind the mountains, a frolicsome breeze trickled upward toward the clearing where I sat alone. I was absorbing the sounds of the mountain and nurturing introspective thoughts. The year was 2000 A.D.
The mountain was called Cerro Pelado. Bald hill. About two stones' throws behind me was the schoolhouse with its thick white cinderblock walls. That's where we stayed, and where my companions were getting ready for bed. I was there in Cerro Pelado with about a dozen Americans from churches in the American southeast. It was a one-week medical mission trip.
Below my clearing was the jungle, and I could hear living things churning about in the shadowy foliage. I imagined they were chickens and pigs. Little naked pink pigs and mangy world-weary chickens were always darting around our feet in the schoolyard, and I surmised they had ventured jungleward to seek shelter in the night.
I had been a missionary and Bible teacher. That's what I was trained to do. But on this trip I did no teaching. I was just there to be a pharmacy technician. Really what I did was put drugs in bags. My little makeshift pharmacy unit gave most of the villagers de-worming medicine and Tylenol. My job was to fill the patients' little paper bags with those two goodies plus whatever else the doctors prescribed.
That afternoon, I had joined one of the teaching teams for a trek into the village. There was a preacher and an interpreter and me and another hanger-on. I recalled stopping by the hut of the village medicine man. For a shaman he was remarkably warm and friendly, and seemed completely unperturbed by my companions' Jesus-talk. This was a man who sacrificed chickens and interpreted the will of the gods in their entrails. But I wasn't interested in changing his beliefs. Although I'd been a missionary to Russia and an associate minister in America, I was finished with converting people.
I didn't believe in the supernatural at all anymore. Why argue over religion when none of it makes any difference anyway?
In fact, I felt bad for the people I'd taught. During my college days, I'd done door-to-door evangelism campaigns in New Zealand and nine American states. I'd been reasonably effective in arranging home Bible studies and getting people to come to church. I had a teaching system that I'd inherited from my mentor. Here's what I'd teach.
We used fill-in-the-blank worksheets. The first lesson centered on sin and death, on the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. he goal of lesson one was to stimulate guilt and a sense of lost-ness.
Lesson two was about "God's Plan." It told about God calling Abraham in the book of Genesis and God giving the Law to the Jews through Moses. The point of the lesson was to highlight the flaws in the Old Testament law.
Lesson three jumped ahead, skipping the Gospels, straight to the book of Acts. The focus was on the church, and how people in the book of Acts joined the church by being baptized. The climax of the lesson was when I asked the student whether she wanted to be baptized and join the true biblical church.
If the answer was no, I had another lesson. This lesson focused on sin and how the student was a sinner. The worksheet had two columns which contrasted heaven and hell. The point of the lesson was that the student now had the power to choose eternal torment or everlasting paradise.
And sometimes I used another worksheet. This one was about "acceptable" worship. The lesson listed five things the Bible authorizes people to do in worship: sing, pray, give, preach, and take the Lord's Supper. An accompanying diagram explained that when we add anything to these five elements ("traditions of men" like incense, praying to Mary, church raffles, taking bread but not wine for the Lord's Supper, and using musical instruments), we sin.
I'd brought some people into my church using those lessons. But that was behind me. That night in Panama, watching the sun sink below the mountains, I comforted myself with the thought that there is no God. But I still had trouble shaking the images of Jesus from the cobwebby corners of my psyche.
When I thought about the person I'd been before, I saw an image of Jesus. It's Jesus from chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew. That's the chapter where Jesus lets loose with a litany of "woes" or "curses" against the Pharisees, against the conservative religious establishment of his day. He told them:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you make sure you give to God the correct amount of your tiniest spices — mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the weightier matters of the law — justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (NIV).