This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. 1 John 3:16
It was a warm, but not uncomfortable, day in the tiny village of El Rodeo, Guatemala. Actually, El Rodeo is less a village and more a scattered collection of shops, churches, and dwellings, some rather makeshift, nestled in the shadow of the volcano Fuego, which means “fire.” That fact, added to the ever-present, smoky aroma of tortillas cooking on the griddle and the occasional staccato clucking of an errant chicken punctuating the still air, definitely gave it an “I’m not from around here” feel – at least to my city-boy sensibilities.
I was part of a team that had just finished dedicating the small but sturdy home we had built for Iola and her family a few days earlier as part of a mission trip. Just like most of the people we encountered while we were there, Iola was small with dark eyes and jet-black hair, with a lovely burnished-brown complexion. While I felt like King Kong when I entered the 12’ x 12’ wood and corrugated tin house, her entire family of five practically rattled around inside it, making it look cavernous and roomy.
I had hardly noticed her during the two days we were there to build. While her husband, Edgar, pitched in to help hammer nails to attach the tin siding, she stood at a distance, curiously watching our progress. Occasionally she would come retrieve an escaped toddler, giving us a much-appreciated break to pass out candy and coo at the baby.
As part of the dedication service, we hung a hand-crafted cross inside the new home and presented her and her family with some food, clothing, and a Spanish-language Bible. Afterward, our interpreter, Lisa, shared a brief Gospel message, reading from the book of San Juan (St. John). As with all of our new homeowners, Lisa asked if they knew, or would like to know, Jesus as their Savior. Neither Iola nor her husband responded in the affirmative.
As our team concluded the service and gathered our backpacks in preparation to continue on to the next house, I silently prayed that somehow we had at least planted a seed that day and that someone in the family would one day know the amazing gift of God’s grace.
Little did I know…
We formed a sort of receiving line on our way out, each hugging Iola and her family in turn on the porch of their new home. Everyone had hugged and gone on to the truck except for me and my two dear brothers in Christ: David, our team leader, and Johnny, an evangelist and head of the ministry organization that sponsored the trip. When it came my turn to hug Iola and say adios, she hugged me back – tightly. Hers was no mere cordial hug, though; she clung to me, breathlessly murmuring a stream of Spanish punctuated by her tears.
My Spanish is practically non-existent – greetings, pleasantries, counting to ten, “Please stand clear of the door” (something I learned from riding the monorail at Disney World), a few mission-trip phrases like “God bless you” and “Jesus loves you” – so I had no idea what she was telling me. I assumed she was just tearfully thanking me for what we had done for her family, for my kindness to her children, for showing her husband respect.
But I soon discovered that wasn’t what she was telling me at all. What she was telling me and what I didn’t know at the time due to my limited Spanish, was that she wasn’t a Christian – and that she really wanted to be.
Obviously I can’t speak with any certainty, but remembering the almost frantic tone in her voice, this is what I now imagine she was telling me:
“Please don’t go yet. I heard the lady who read from the Bible say that I could have Jesus in my heart. I want that, what you have – what you all have. But I don’t know how to get it. Will you help me? Can you help me get Jesus in my heart? Please don’t leave without helping me find Jesus.”
Sadly, in that moment I didn’t comprehend any of that. However, when I finally broke away and moved to go, clueless to her pleas for help, she didn’t give up. I know that feeling well, having felt that same sense of urgency prior to my own salvation experience a little over four years ago. When the Holy Spirit truly gets a toe-hold in your heart as he had Iola’s – and mine – there’s nothing to do but keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, secure all loose items, and hang on.
Since David was next in line for a hug, she repeated her cry for help – and this time, the Holy Spirit (who is obviously fluent in Spanish, more than just “Please stand clear of the door”) broke through the language barrier.
When I heard David calling for Johnny, the evangelist, I knew I didn’t want to miss what was about to happen. I did an about face, ducking under the clothes she had hung out to dry, and hurried back to the receiving line, determined to be a witness to the new creation about to be reborn on that front porch.
You see, that’s why I went to Guatemala, why I begged friends and family to help me financially, why I worked in the hot sun in the morning and in the rain and ankle-deep mud in the afternoon. I didn’t go to build houses, although that’s what I did most of the week. For me, building a house for someone was just a way of getting a foot in the door (so to speak), an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, an entrée into the lives of people who don’t know the full measure of the sacrifice Jesus made for them. I went to Guatemala to testify to the widespread power of God’s amazing grace, given freely to anyone who asks for it – including Iola – even if those she’s asking barely know how to count to ten in her language.
Thankfully, though, having taken groups on mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries for decades, Johnny spoke enough Spanish to communicate with Iola, although that whole scene brought to mind what Paul said in Romans 8:26:
The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
Johnny and Iola prayed with words that the other didn’t understand. But the God of all creation, the good and gracious God who is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” the God who sent His only Son to die in our place – He understood. And in Iola’s confession of faith, we understood two Spanish words: Christo (Christ) and corazón (heart). Iola finally had Jesus in her heart.
John, the apostle Jesus loved, wrote:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. (1 John 3:16)
Jesus laid His life down for Iola and for me and for you. His life wasn’t taken from Him. Not in one single moment leading up to His death on the cross was he helpless to prevent what was being done to Him; at no time was He an unwitting victim. He gave His life freely and willingly. That’s what love is. That’s the power of the cross.
So did Iola see that love in us as we worked on her new home (itself a special kind of fellowship)? Did God use that act of service to her family to show what happens when Jesus becomes Lord of someone’s life? Did that love somehow shine through us, eventually washing over Iola by way of the Holy Spirit to the point that she was not going to let those enormous gringos go without helping her to know that love as well?
Two words: Christo corazón.
Iola has a new home built by hands who traveled a great distance to share Jesus with her; but as David said later, “We witnessed the gift of a temporal home lead to the free gift of an eternal home.”
Beautifully said, my brother…
So I’m boning up on my Spanish so that when I see Iola in heaven, I can say a lot more than “Please stand clear of the door.” I want to be able to tell her what her salvation experience meant to me; how it tied the most beautiful bow on the gift that so many friends and family members gave me by making it possible for me to travel to Guatemala and meet her.
Most of all, though, I want to tell her that seeing her receive Christo in her corazón was worth the miles and the fund raising and the hours of labor that week. I didn’t have to understand her words – the language of grace is universal.
Until then, Iola, just know that Jesús te ama – Jesus loves you: He proved it long ago…