Poverty is all around me here in El Niño, Mexico where I am leading a group of Mexican pastors on a time of retreat and soul training. The pot hole filled dirt roads are lined with unfinished houses and shacks built by squatters. Garbage is strewn about. Rangy dogs are foraging for scraps. The prettiest things you see are the colorful flyers promoting rich politicians.

After a bumpy ride we arrive at Rancho Jireh, which is a retreat center at the base of some rocky foothills. Even here there are unfinished buildings, empty dirt fields, and piles of junk, but I hear the sounds of birds singing and notice they’re in a clump of large green trees and flowering plants. Let’s go to the garden!

As we sit down to relax in our circle I notice smells of burning trash wafting in and then a car comes barreling down the streets with a man shouting through blaring loud speakers trying to sell tacos! Probably the pastors don’t even notice these smells and sounds so familiar to them, but I need to rely on the Lord in our midst to help me be at peace. It’s always good for me to remember (which is why I also say it out loud to our group), “Jesus is our Retreat Leader. He is our Teacher and our Wonderful Counselor.”

1 Corinthians 13 Love

I ask everyone to open their Bible to 1 Corinthians 13. I want to help them not to make the common mistake of putting their names in the list, “Bill is patient, Bill is kind, etc.” No. It reads, “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Corinthians 13:4) It’s Love that people need from me, not Bill — love flowing through Bill. “God is love,” meaning he is the source of love, not me (1 John 4:8, 10). Jesus shows us God’s love, especially on the cross (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:10).

Then in quiet prayer I ask each of us to identify the aspect of God’s love that we most need to  rely on for ourselves and overflow with to the people we minister to. Each us takes a turn to share personally and then we close our group by praying for one another. It is a time of discovery, connection to God, and deepening bonds. (“Without Love I Am Nothing” is the experience I shared.)

Now it’s time for me to I lead our group in five hours of solitude and silence with Jesus. As part of preparing them for this I lead them in the experience of a Breath Prayer from the Bible to help them catch the spirit of stillness and attunement to God that they need to bring into their alone time with the Lord.

Most of us, including myself, hike up into the rocky foothills where there is lots of space and quiet. I find a flat, smooth rock to lie back on and look up to see hawks gliding on wind currents. I wonder to myself and to God, “Do I really love Mexico?”

I caught making the same mistake that I just encouraged the pastors not to make! I had said, “Don’t pressure yourself to be more loving. Lose the guilt by looking to Jesus Christ, the source of love!”

Invaded by Ants But Not Overcome

Thankfully God reminds me how the night before in my room I had spent over an hour dealing with an invasion of pesky ants in my backpack, clothes, and bed. They had been attracted to the smell of the special gluten free food I have to bring with me to Mexico so I don’t get sick. As I threw out ant infested food, shook the ants off of my pillow and clothing, and swept the floor I sensed the Spirit of Christ with me and I smiled and prayed, “Gracias Dios para las hormigas.” (“Thank you God for these ants.”)

Standing with Jesus again in this moment I am able to thank God for ants and other inconveniences in Mexico because enduring these Trials enables me to care for these pastors who have such wonderful hearts. They are so eager to learn more about how to love and serve Jesus. They trust me with their deepest hurts and most embarrassing confessions. Over the years I’ve been visiting them I see them growing to be more and more like Jesus.

Soon I’ll be back in the circle of love with them, listening to them share and praying for them. But for now, with Christ’s love for these Mexican pastors in my heart, I pray, “Gracias Dios para las hormigas.”

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