For those that follow me on Twitter, you probably remember seeing this tweet:
I leave tomorrow for evangelism in Cuba for 2 weeks. Thx for prayers for series and for me. Leaving my fam is really hard on me.
— Rodlie Ortiz (@rodlie) May 6, 2013
The undergrad religion department at Andrews University was sending a group of students to do evangelism in Cuba and they invited four pastors, including myself, to join them. I had no idea what to expect, to be honest. I had done two previous evangelistic series in Latin America, but Cuba seemed quite the mystery to me.
After traveling through Mexico, and then traveling for two days from Havana, we arrived at the city of Holguin in the eastern part of the country. By the way, Cuba is pretty huge. Most don’t realize just how large it is.
On a friday evening I arrived around 45 minutes early ready to set things up and begin preaching. I found that I had come in the middle of a prayer meeting. The church leaders were gathered and they were praying for me and the presentations. They stopped and welcomed me, and then they began telling me about their preparations.
“Pastor,” the head elder began, “We’ve been praying and fasting for you. I have gone many meals without eating because I’ve been fasting for you.” Only later would I find out just how much of a sacrifice skipping a meal or two is in a country in which food is not abundant.
The head elder continued speaking and filling me with, what I can only describe as “faith.”
“God is going to bless tremendously,” he said. “We know that angels and God’s Spirit will follow your words and give them power. Many will be blessed and baptized as a result of your preaching.”
All the while I’m a little stunned, to be honest. I’m thinking to myself they have no idea what they’re getting in to. Of course, I could preach just fine in English. But I think of preaching in Spanish much like I imagine a person giving their first public speech: hardly a pleasant experience for the giver or receiver.
They then laid hands on me to pray and excused me as the service was about to begin.
I preached Friday night, Saturday evening, Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday evening, but I fundamentally felt dumb.
You see, normally when I speak in Spanish, I write the manuscript in English, and then my wife helps me to translate them into Spanish. I then review the Spanish manuscript, and if all that prep work is done, I can usually feel pretty good. But this experience was different. I met the pastor for lunch at his house on Saturday afternoon and asked him to be clear with me about what they were needing preaching wise. I wanted to know how I could best serve his congregation and bring the most relevant messages. After having a good discussion, I decided to scrap the approach and series I had brought in. Everything would be new. This meant that I would just have a few hours every day, to prepare the message that I would preach that evening. This, of course, meant that I wouldn’t have any translation help. I would be translating on the fly. I was really going to need God’s help.
Every night was pretty similar. I would inevitably forget some word in Spanish and would have to ask them, “How do you say_____ in Spanish?” Usually this would take place several times per night. I laughed it off, of course. I laughed. They laughed. What else could you do? But it made me feel dumb.
I started to feel a little down on myself.
If only I could preach in English, I would think, I could make this sound good.
I could make this sound pretty.
If only they could hear me preach in English, then they’d be impressed.
Then I could sound smart and not feel dumb. I could use all the cool tricks that speakers use in their delivery. But in Spanish I didn’t have any of that. I probably sounded like the average 6th grader and it made me feel stupid.
I know, I confess that pride was getting in the way of my preaching. It was all about me and whether I could make a presentation sound good or not.
But then something happened on Wednesday.
I was speaking on baptism. The pastor and I had printed out some really simple response cards. I made the appeal. Cards were passed out, and then during the final song, I asked all those that had made a decision for baptism to come forward so I could pray for them.
Around 57 people came forward.
There wasn’t enough room in the front of the church for them to fit so they flooded the stage. Instantly, the Scripture in John 12:32 came to my mind and pierced my heart: “And I, If I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
I thought it was about me, but God was reminded me that my job is to lift Jesus up and that He will draw the people.
Not my eloquent speaking.
Not my witty alliteration.
Not my moving stories.
Not my perfectly timed jokes or points.
I couldn’t help myself and I began to weep. The Lord was rebuking me with his grace.
On Friday evening I asked the pastor how many baptisms we were going to have for the next day. To my surprise he said, “twenty.” We had baptisms on Saturday morning and Sabbath evening. The pastor had asked me, when he finished all the baptisms, to do one more appeal.
So after he finished all the baptizing, up I went.
Now there’s something that you need to understand. Sometimes it’s hard to do a come forward appeal. At times in the past I’ve worried about people not coming forward, but not this time. I was in perfect peace.
Here’s what I said:
“57 of you made decisions to be baptized. 20 of you already followed through with them. Is there anyone here tonight that hasn’t yet made a decision to be baptized? If that’s you, I invite you to come to the front and I want to pray for you.”
One person stood up and came forward.
“Is there anyone else?”
Another person came forward.
“Anyone else?” Nobody came this time. “Ok, well let’s pray for these two people.”
Just as I was about to start praying someone announced: “Wait, pastor! Someone else is coming forward!”
One mother came forward crying. As I was about to pray she said, “wait, pastor, my daughter!” as she pointed to her sobbing daughter still in the pews. The mother left the stage, walked to where her 15-year-old daughter was, and invited her to make her decision as well. The daughter nodded and also came up.
One more person would come forward.
This is generally how things went for about the next ten minutes as 27 people came forward. Young men in their twenties. Mothers. Fathers. Grandparents. Some kids. One by one. Almost closing to pray and then another would come forward. No drama. No fancy appeals. Just a simple invitation. Like corks that had been held underwater for too long and suddenly released people came up out of their seats.
God was reminding me that it wasn’t about my Spanish. He reminded me that, if He needs to, He can make a donkey speak (Numbers 22:28). If He needs to, He can make the rocks cry out (Luke 19:40). This was not my show. God was in charge and He would get the glory. I would be stripped down and left only with my simple spanish and people would realize that it’s about Him.
Needless to say it was a powerful experience and a wonderful reminder of humility in preaching. I, for one, really needed that lesson.
So what about you? Ever had a situation where you feel like God rebuked you in your preaching?