“And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Mark 16: 17-18
Growing up, I had no idea what it meant to be “born again.” I knew about Billy Graham and would watch him on occasion when his sermons (“crusades” they were called) were broadcast on television. I enjoyed his take on contemporary events, but as soon as he began drawing parallels to the Bible, I turned the channel.
Then I became a Christian at the age of twenty-nine.
From day one, I had a strong sense that I should become a missionary; it just seemed the natural next step. My assumption was that missionaries must be very close to Jesus and I wanted to be as close to Jesus as I could possibly be!
I first made enquiries at the Swiss Red Cross! Hey, they had a cross in their logo, and they did good for other people—especially victims of calamities and disasters. Sounded Christian to me.
Nothing much came of that effort, but it didn’t slow me down. I next turned to the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order with a campus in New Rochelle, about an hour’s drive from where I was living in New York City. I had been drawn to their organization through an inspirational booklet they mailed out each month, and which I enjoyed reading. I gave them a call one day and spoke with a priest whose name I no longer remember. I told him how much I enjoyed the inspirational booklet and then asked him if they were taking on any missionaries.
There was a long pause on the other line. The priest then asked me about my religious background, and I told him I was a born-again Christian!
Another pause and again the kind voice. “You realize we are a Catholic organization.”
“Oh, sure, I know that, but you love Jesus, don’t you?”
“Yes, we love Jesus,” said the priest.
“That’s all that matters to me,” I said cheerily.
The priest invited me to come up and take a look around the campus in New Rochelle, which I did. Well, I didn’t become a missionary with the Salesians either, but I kept trying; and within a year I had become a missionary with Latin America Mission located in Miami, Florida. And it was during my two-year stint with LAM that I met the man whose likeness appears at the top of this newsletter: Victor Landero.
Victor was from the northern part of Colombia, a man of humble origins, illiterate—a drunkard and womanizer who ran a brothel at the edge of town. When he bought a Bible from a colporteur venturing through his village of Corozalito, he taught himself to read from the same book, and in time became a believer.
But not just any believer. Victor became an ardent evangelist desiring all the Bible had to offer, including the miracles he read about in the New Testament. The verses in Mark (referenced above) became something of a checklist for him and a growing number of disciples, as they prayed and waited on the Holy Spirit to manifest his presence with “signs following.”
What made this of particular interest to me was that Victor Landero’s story, and ministry, was embraced by LAM, which began re-examining its conservative theology in light of the spiritual revolution taking place in northern Colombia in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, thousands came to faith in Christ—the majority through signs and wonders that could not be denied.
I was already an outlier. I had no loyalties to a particular denomination (I still don’t), and there were no theological hurdles for me to overcome when it came to taking the miracles of the New Testament at face value. Why shouldn’t the miracles of the past take place in the present day? Has God’s power waned over time? Not in my view. But why stand around arguing? Get to doing! And for me that meant primarily one thing: miracles. Show me the miracles! I began to entertain the thought that perhaps God would use me to lead healing crusades like Smith Wigglesworth had done in the early 20th century, or Kathryn Kuhlman in the mid to latter 20th century, followed by Benny Hinn and others. And I want to say, my intentions were pure. I wanted nothing more than to bring glory to God. At the same time, I think I may have been a bit full of myself.
I got my first preaching gig at a Spanish-speaking church in Coral Gables, Florida (I had learned Spanish as a boy from my mother). I preached from 1 Corinthians 15:50 where it says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” When I reached the end of my sermon, I called for people to come forward for healing. Among the small crowd that gathered at the altar was a middle-aged woman with a sling around her shoulder and a bandage wrapped around her arm. I asked her what was wrong. She told me her arm was badly sprained.
“I believe God wants to heal you,” I told her. She nodded vigorously and began to cry. “Take off the sling” I cried, “and move your arm!” A lady beside her helped her remove the cast and the woman began moving her arm, flexing her fingers and making a fist, then raising her arm over her head and shouting through tears, “Alleluia!” I never saw her again, but I trust the healing was real.
I preached fairly often in those days, almost always in Spanish, and more often than not overseas. I saw people come to faith in Jesus. I saw some profess healing after the laying on of hands. And I saw quite a few people “slain in the Spirit” when I touched them on their forehead! But I was looking for something more. I wanted to land some big fish! I wanted to see the lame walk. I wanted to see the blind receive their sight and the dead raised to life.
And then, I had my moment with destiny. I met the legendary Victor Landero in Barranquilla, Colombia during one of my trips for LAM. He came to meet me alone (no entourage), dressed simply, and we talked for thirty minutes or so over coffee at a street side café. I peppered him with questions about his godly “exploits” and the miracles he had experienced. He nodded. It was all true. But that’s not what he was experiencing anymore. His ministry had shifted to living among a small group of Emberá, an indigenous people in the Pacific jungle lowlands situated along the border between Panama and Colombia.
It was a hard slough, he told me. Not many people had come to faith. But Victor was undeterred. “I will stay there as long as God wants me to,” he said simply. When it came time for him to go, we shook hands and he walked across the street to catch a bus back to the main terminal and the jungle regions beyond. I stood in awe as he disappeared in the crowd. He was to me a living saint.
I came to know other missionaries during that particular trip to Latin America, traveling also to Ecuador and Peru. They were mostly humble, self-effacing types like Victor, living modestly without fuss or fanfare. It all gave me a lot to think about.
I flew back to the States, landing at La Guardia and taking a cab to my apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. As I alighted from the taxi, I dropped a precious package of photographs and negatives in a muddy puddle. And in that moment… forgive me church ladies… I used an expletive. It rolled off my tongue with surprising ease, just as it would have done in the olden days when I lived beyond the Jordan. But these were not the olden days, and this was not beyond the Jordan. I was a follower of Christ now. Born-again, renewed in my thinking, transformed within. And in that moment, I was struck with a deep regret for having used such language. “Lord,” I said. “I am so sorry. Forgive me!”
And then came a silver lining.
As I retrieved my precious photographic material from the Manhattan mud puddle, saving what I could, it dawned on me that I had all the proof I would ever need to stand by the assertion that God still performs miracles today. When I came to Christ at the age of 29, he had mysteriously, miraculously, changed my heart! He had redirected my desires! He had “called me out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Using that expletive was a blessing in a way. It reminded me of who I once had been and who, by God’s grace, I would never be again.
Catholic? Protestant? Charismatic? Traditional? Tongues? No tongues? That’s not where it’s at, baby. What matters is being a new creation in Christ. That’s the greatest miracle of all. It really is what’s in your heart that counts! And, perhaps, what comes out of your mouth without thinking when you accidentally drop something special in the mud.
Fall is coming and harvest draws near. Get ready, friends. The best is yet to come.