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Adventures in River Time

There's nothing like a tranquil boatride down the Amazon to bring perspective.

The team’s destination was Paituma, a small fishing village located on the Gurupatula River. The list of things that are lacking in this Amazon community is many times longer than the list of things possessed. No electricity. No running water. No health clinic. No resident doctors or dentists. No drug store. No telephones. No schools beyond the fourth grade.

And no Bible-believing church.

The team’s mission, while simple, was profoundly important: to show God’s love through the caring hands of a doctor and dentist, and share God’s Word with a community of people who had never heard a clear presentation of the gospel.

Two members of our team — Dr. Sérgio and Dr. Edson — had come all the way from São Paulo to volunteer their time and talent. In so doing, they’d chosen tropical heat, plain food and tough physical work over the pleasures of a golf course or ritzy ski resort. The impact of Christians like these, who come to the Amazon as short-term missionaries, is powerful and long-lasting.

Eternal, in fact.

But the blessings they impart are only part of the story. Over and over again we see that God isn’t confined to one-way streets or hemmed in by human thinking. His interest may fall as intensely upon changing the visitor’s heart as it does upon completing the visitor’s mission.

As we loaded the boat that morning and made preparations to leave, I could see that Dr. Sérgio was in rough shape. Though he was making a super effort to be positive and helpful — hefting bunches of bananas and water jugs up the gangway — it was obvious that he was burned out and full of apprehension.

I looked for a chance to talk with him, and found it finally as the last of the medical supplies were being put on board. “Are you all right?”

He smiled briefly. His dark eyes tried to twinkle, but failed. “Not so good,” he admitted. “Mostly, I’ve been praying for more sleep. That’s been my main prayer. You know, I’m plugged in and running all the time. On my way to work, I ask God if He could somehow help me get more sleep. Working long hours at the hospital, day after day, it’s always the same. Plugged in and running.”

I said everything I could to encourage the man and then prayed with him. I felt sure that God was going to use the river trip — as He’d so often done with other visitors — to speak into Dr. Sérgio’s life.

You see, there’s a wonderful sort of slowing that occurs when you go out on the Amazon. This strange and beautiful transition — let’s call it a shift into “River Time” — actually starts at the mission guesthouse when visitors first arrive. They discover, oddly, and sometimes very uncomfortably, that there’s no television or radio in the guesthouse. In fact, there’s no canned entertainment of any sort. Human beings loom suddenly larger and closer and more important. Real live conversations break out that often delve into matters of true and lasting importance.

Later, out on the river boat, destined for some distant village, life gets quieter and closer still. Ten kilometers out of Santarém you discover that your cell phone no longer works and that the battery on your iPod has inexplicably failed. For some people, the true test of the Amazon isn’t how they’ll react should they come across a snake on the trail or be invited to swim in piranha-infested water, but whether or not they can make it through the first 24 hours without any media.

The boat chugs along, hour after hour, at 10 to 12 knots. Time drifts and dallies along, taking its cues from the sun and the wind and the current. This is a place where watches fail to synchronize and usually end up abandoned in the bottom of your duffle bag. You swing gently back and forth in your hammock, with a new friend or old swinging close beside you. There’s plenty of time to talk, plenty of time to read, and plenty of time to dream. God is looking for His opportunity.

For Dr. Sérgio, that opportunity came at three o’clock in the morning, his second night out on the river. The boat was tied off close to the shore, near Paituma. The health team had worked hard all day, attending hundreds of patients, and gone to their hammocks early. The boat rested gently on the water, very still and dark.

Unable to sleep, Dr. Sérgio got up out of his hammock and made his way aft. He slipped along the row of staggered hammocks, gently ducking the cords, careful not to wake his friends.

“Because the moon was so full and bright, I didn’t need my flashlight,” he told us later. “I went down the ladder onto the fantail and stood there under the dazzling moon. I looked out across the estuary and up into the sleeping village where we’d held the clinic.

“The boat rested in perfect silence — not even a snorer. But around me the night was filled with an incredible chorus of frogs and crickets and night birds. And the spirit of God fell upon me with such sweetness and power that I fell down on my knees, there on the back of the boat, and just began to praise Him, and finally, to weep with joy. I have never felt the anointing of God so strongly in my life as I did that moment, and decided right then and there that on this trip, in this place, I didn’t want to waste time sleeping.

“I reflected upon my life in the city, running so hard, always running, and praying, always praying, for more time to sleep. And I realized that time had shifted on me, there on the river. And that earlier that day, when the team had gathered under the open sky to worship and pray, how God was already touching my heart, preparing me for this moment, when I would be alone with Him and ready to listen.

“I stayed there on the stern of the boat till sunrise, then went topside. I slipped in beside Dr. Edson’s hammock — he was fast asleep — and nudged him playfully in the ribs. ‘Hey, Edson,’ I said, ‘Don’t waste time sleeping. Not here. It’s so beautiful. Get up and see.’

“Edson rolled over, gave me a peculiar look, and muttered, ‘I thought you were the guy who was sleep-deprived?’

“‘That might have been me,’ I admitted. ‘But not here on the river. Not now. Now we’re on river time!’

“You see, I know now that God doesn’t want me to go running, stumbling through my days. But rather to slow down and walk with Him, or better still, to just sit at His feet and listen. That’s it. To listen!”

* * *

I’ll never forget the passion with which Dr. Sérgio shared his testimony with us when he returned to Santarém. But more, I am struck by how relevant his testimony was and is to my own over-busy and often-deaf condition. I know, in my heart of hearts, where my Heavenly Father would like to take me. It’s a place called “River Time.” And I know the beautiful and healing counsel of His voice, calling me into deeper relationship: “Slow down. Unplug. Let’s take a few minutes together….”

Copyright 2008 Project AmaZon. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Don Best

Don Best has been working as a missionary with Project AmaZon (PAZ) since 2002. He and his wife, Betty, live at the mission’s main base in Santarém, Brazil, working in communications and hosting the PAZ guesthouse. PAZ has planted more than 550 Christ-centered churches in the Amazon Basin and aspires, by the grace of God, to reach the thousands of towns and villages that still have no Bible-believing church.

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