In an affluent society, it is easier to be an atheist. Or at least a pragmatic atheist. Regardless of what you say you believe, our actions can look like we are controlling our own destiny and we live for the here and now. Where we spend our money and time will quickly reveal where our heart beliefs lie (pun intended?). If our ledger does not reveal our hearts, our anxieties will. What stresses us out, and what does that reveal about our beliefs in God and the afterlife?
Our affluence has led us to what culture calls a “post truth” society. It is an inaccurate title. Really, it should be called- “the truth is whatever mainstream media says is truth and don’t you dare disagree.” And mainstream media says the Bible is not inspired and true. Now media will concede private spiritualism, but not eternal truth, and definitely not truth that defies individualism and calls on unity instead of individuality. That unity is not found in a crede you can post in your yard, but in relationship with Christ. Jesus, the incarnate son of God, who has revealed the Eternal God to us (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
Whether we say we believe in this eternal God or not, what do our actions, ledgers, time, and stresses communicate? It’s easy to become a pragmatic atheist in a wealthy American microcosm.
This 2020 year, filled with a pandemic, exposed injustices, rumors of wars, rioting, and hatemongering threatens to remove our health, wealth, and predictable comforts. The crisis teeters on our edge of conviction and worldview. Do we really believe that there is one eternal God who has always existed in a glorious love where each person within the Trinity defers to the others? Do we believe that this 3-personed, One God explosively created out of this love? And that this creation is supernaturally spectacular and predictable (e.g. sunrise, diffusion, gravity, electromagnetism…)? And that God lovingly, purposefully, and specifically created humans to be filled with His loving glory and overflow it in caring for creation?
While many hope that vaccines and herd immunity will return life back to predictable comforts of health and wealth, my desire in this blog is to beg you to not miss this sense of 2020 desperation to re-convince you of pragmatic Christianity. What I mean by that is, the threat of COVID’s impact on our wallet, health and plans is a chance for us to re-realize the cosmic truth that we desperately need God, His salvation, and a recalibration to live out His purposes for our lives.
While pandemics and threats of economic collapse or wars can serve as a wake up call, the only complete wake up call is death itself. Two of my dearest friends have passed this year.
If you were to ask me any time over the past 20 years, do you have any living heroes, I would have immediately responded, “Travis Johnson and Piter Jimenez” (past blog on Travis). Travis went to be with Jesus on February 13th with both hands open as Jesus showed up in his room to take him home to heaven. This week Piter fought through several seizures throughout the morning of December 27, due to kindey failure. While his body fought, he told his family in his final moments that he was hearing the most beautiful voice calling his name. He was 52. He is now immortally with Jesus.
But let me go back to 2004. It was my first year leading a Christian, International School in Caracas, Venezuela as a 25 year old. I participated in the annual high school trip: an archaeological dig in the in Caribbean archipelago of Los Roques. It is probably the prettiest place I have ever visited. Yet, I struggled. Many of the high schoolers found themselves on a trip to paradise but constantly complained. After the trip, I began praying for a different excursion in the future.
Months went by and then a missionary, Eric Barry, mentioned that his family went to the Orinoco River Delta for a mission trip. In my spirit, I knew that was the trip for our school. And this is where Piter Jimenez’s story began to intersect with my own.
I started planning the trip. Instead of airfare and secure accommodations, we worked on public bus fare and rustic boat logistics. I redesigned the trip for only seniors, and this first class was by in large a pretty apathetic senior group (with some exceptions!). The only reason some of them were motivated to go was because it meant a week out of school. I clearly remember one father storming into my office. He showed me newspaper articles describing how druglords pose as national guard control points along the 12 hour drive to Tucupita. They would force passengers to disembark and then kidnap them and either kill or hold them for ransom. The dad did not want his daughter to go on the trip but conceded that she wanted to attend. So then he made me swear to stay with her, should she be kidnapped. I did.
The day arrived. We took the students to the public bus terminal (which was an adventure all on its own). I panically tried to keep my eyes on the 14 students while we waited 2 hours. I momentarily lost sight of two of my favorites, Seung He and Dan, both Koreans. Thirty minutes later they returned with bowls of spaghetti. I chided them, “You are going to get sick. For all you know, that is dog meat.” To which Dan responded, “Dog is good.” And Seung concurred in his broken English, “yeah, tender.”
Finally, we boarded and scattered throughout a bus with many humble strangers who got on and off at sweaty bus stops throughout the night. At sunrise, we pulled in at a small stop in the trash infested town of Tucupita. And the biggest Venezuelan smile and warmest hug welcomed us- my soon to be soul mate, Piter Jimenez. He rounded us up in the back of a fenced-bordered pick up truck, where it was standing room only. He took us to a motel to “freshen up.” After a brief rest, we drove to his concrete block home that resided next to the main thoroughfare. On the way, we had to stop for a herd of water buffalo to finish crossing the highway. At his house, we helped with lots of projects, from picking up trash in the area to sanding and painting fences. At the day’s end, I was able to bathe in his home, which meant squeezing into his small bathroom and standing between the sink, john, and a big barrel of water. Sponge bath. Humble home.
The next day, before the break of dawn, we loaded a rusty boat (curiada), where a few Warao men navigated us for 10 hours on a lonely and beautiful river, surrounded by jungle. We made a few stops on the way, to fish for piranha, or to meet a man named Flaco and his wife Gorda, who served us homemade coffee and fried iguana.
As we traveled in the open air and under the equator’s sun, I began hearing Piter’s stories. I have never heard or told stories this spectacular. I will share a couple of these humble hero adventures with you.
This 39 year old year old told me how 20 years prior he attended a prayer gathering. In his own words, he was a good baptist, without a pentacostal bone in his body 😉 During the conference, an unknown person began to pray and then prophecy to the group of over 100 believers. “There is someone here who God is calling to the unreached Warao indians,” she said. Piter began saying “amen” and was happy that someone (else) would be laying down his life to reach people who lived so far away from civilization. As the prayer continued, the person drew close to Piter and pointed, “It is you, Pedro, whom your friends call Piter, who God is calling to the Warao.” Flabbergasted. Yet, he could not deny God was supernaturally speaking… to him. And that day changed his life forever.
Soon thereafter, he went to visit some Warao, rowing a dugout canoe for 3 days through the jungles. Piter encountered a small group of stilted, wall-less homes on the river. He discovered how alcoholism had destroyed the families. The adults were in such stupors that they could not care for the children, and neglected babies had died. Piter’s heart was pierced for these downtrodden people. When he returned to his town, he shared his plans with his beloved fiancee. Shocked, she was unwilling to follow and he had to decide between the Warao or his future wife.
Alone, he returned to the delta, rowing to various communities on the river. Piter began preaching through translators. His message was simple, “Jesus is powerful enough to save.” He read stories like that of Lazarus.. Having finished the missionary journey, he turned back, returning down the jungle river and passing back by the sporadic huts. At one point, a couple hailed him down. Piter stopped and discovered they were mourning. Their young daughter had died. They asked him if his God of power could raise their daughter from the dead. The 19 year old evangelist was scared and dumbstruck. All he could do was begin to pray with them. After some time in prayer, crying out to the All Powerful, Compassionate God of the universe, Piter witnessed the dead daughter stand up in the boat. Immediately, the family repented and believed in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. With my mouth gaped open as I listened to Piter on the boat, he tells me we can stop by and meet the girl who is now a woman and lives in a neighboring community.
Piter went on to tell me of encounters with angels, miracles, and even witnessing the presence of demons over the years. As he ministered to the Warao, he ended up meeting Adela, who shared his passion for Jesus and missions. They married and eventually had 2 daughters, Bisley and Thais, and they lived amongst the Warao in their river jungle.
At one point, one of his children became deathly ill and they had to travel to the mainland and then 12 hours by bus to the capital, Caracas. The Jimenez’s spent their last coins paying for a round trip subway to the hospital. At the public hospital they were told nothing could be done and were refused admission. Desperate, they returned to the slam packed subway without a plan since they could not afford the private hospitals. After embarking, a tall man next to him called Piter by name and acclaimed, “God is great! He can do anything.” Piter was too embarrassed to admit he did not recognize the stranger, and crestfallenly echoed back that God was great. They continued praising God until they were jolted at the next stop. Piter felt him hit his pocket. Piter then looked around only to discover that this very tall man completely disappeared. Piter felt in his pocket a huge roll of cash. With this angelic provision, they went on to get the medical care they needed, food and accommodations and returned back to the delta. Every time he reached in his pocket, there was money to pay. Piter jokingly added that he never counted the cash until they were back home. And once that cash was spent it was over. He smiled at me and said, “I shouldn’t have counted the cash!”
Time flew by on the 10 hour boat ride, and we arrived at the biggest miracle, a “town” of over 100 stilted homes on the river. Arature. Oh, I love Arature. You see, generally the Warao do not live amongst larger groups. Due to alcoholism and stealing, there was great distrust. However, 18 some years prior to my arrival, Piter built a small, stilted home on the river along with a few new Christian families. The word quickly spread that there was a place where people protected and provided for each other. Kind of like how the Bible describes a light on a hill. And one by one, families moved to Arature, where Piter was more than eager to explain the secret to their peace was a personal relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit. By 2005, there was a boardwalk that connected the homes and a sweet open-aired chapel in the middle of the community, where we joyfully sang acapella songs and listened to various Warao preach in their language each night.
That week was the most magical of my life. We supported the Jimenez’s work with literacy classes, vacation bible school, lice treatments, health education, as well as making new friendships. I remember 4 ½ foot tall Alfredo who took me on all night hunts in his tipsy topsy wooden canoe. I will definitely not forget our boat ride and then the 12 hour bus ride back home. We were allowed to travel together in the bottom level of the bus, and there was a delightful stewardess who took care of us and kept acclaiming how great God is. One by one each student gave testimony to how their lives were completely transformed that week and would never be the same again. Bliss. I finally drifted off to sleep as the students were singing praise songs. Only to be jolted…
It was 2 am and the bus was stopped in the middle of the road at a national guard checkpoint, far from any terminals or civilization. A soldier entered the bus waving his AK 47 at my students, yelling at us to get off the bus. Disoriented, it took us a few minutes, and he came in again, very irate. As we disembarked, armed soldiers lined us up along the road. All I could think was that one dad was right, and we are all about to be kidnapped or worse.
It felt like hours, but at some point the short stewardess came running from the other side of the bus and got in the face of the soldier in charge and yelled “Nobody tells my people to get off my bus.” She then looked at us and ordered us back on the bus, to which we quickly obeyed. Before seated, the bus skidded out of the stop while we fell on top of each other. I doubt that I ever fell back to sleep, but a few hours later we arrived safely back in Caracas. I have always wanted to return to that bus line to see if that stewardess indeed worked there, or was she an angel in disguise that night.
From that week on, Piter became a dear friend and we returned to the delta every year. We built incredible memories, enjoyed practical jokes and excursions ranking from metal detecting for revolutionary war relics on abandoned islands to checking out giant anacondas and pink dolphins, to hearing stories of animals that even National Geographic has never documented. One funny story is when Piter sent Juan Carlos to Caracas for paperwork and asked that we would take care of him for a night. He spent the entire evening looking out of our 7th story apartment window. He could not grasp why the people and cars looked so small below.
I remember my last good bye to Piter was on a mission trip to the Orinoco before finishing my final school year in Caracas. We had returned back to the mainland and were getting a bite to eat before returning to the outdoor bus stop. Piter told me he was diagnosed with kidney failure, but that he would forego dialysis because he would not stop ministering to the Warao on the river. Even then, he was light-hearted, good-natured, and made a joke out of everything. Everything. His favorite joke was that if Rossana and I didn’t start having kids soon, then I would be a grandfather instead of a father to my own kids. That was 10 years ago. While Piter is now enjoying the eternal, loving glory of King Jesus, he left behind a Warao community at Arature who takes the good news of Jesus up and down the off shoots of the Orinoco. The Jimenez family and their team continue to work with Warao on literacy, and are creating a written language for the Warao while also the Warao are translating the New Testament in that language.
Piter lived everyday like it was his last. He lived every day completely dependent on Jesus. And even as his intoxicated body convulsed in his last hours, his heart sang. He joyfully awaited for Jesus to come and bring him home.
As hard as it is for me to say this, it is true that the lives and the deaths of radical Jesus lovers help break us out of our pragmatic atheism. They remind us, powerfully remind us, what is life all about and inspire us to hold on to Jesus and live lives worth living. And not just worth living, but worth dying for. Ultimately, what is so magnetically empowering is that their lives give us a glimpse of that human who was born 2000 years ago.
John 1:14- “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Merry Christmas and Happy 2021! I am so grateful for Jesus’ patience with us, love for us, and eternal purposes on our lives. I also am looking forward to an eternity of Christmases with Christ (And Travis and Piter)
Soli Deo Gloria