Three days and 14 hours. That’s how long I had left to sort out how I’d arrived at this place. Somewhere between the equator and home, I was sitting on the edge of a swimming pool, legs dangling in the moonlit water. The raspy hum of cicadas called from the rainforest just beyond the grounds of the hostel, reminding me that it was past bedtime.
I had spent the summer living in a cloud forest in Costa Rica at a camp for kids. Six other Americans stayed in the cabin for college-age workers getting a taste of the mission field. By day, I perched in a tree house 100 feet in the air, shuffling kids down a zip line, or filled potholes with gravel in the village nearby, or practiced my shaky Spanish with campers on the climbing wall. “Pon tus piernas a la derecha.” “Put your legs to the right,” I’d call, and then offer a muy bueno when they reached the top.
Removed from the steady rhythms of a Christian life back home, I had doubts about God’s purpose and whether I had even accomplished anything by filling holes and helping kids scale a wall. I was determined to sort through those questions before flying home in three days. That’s why I had extended my trip after the mission ended, given away all my clothes except what could fit into a small backpack, and taken a bus to Arenal, a small town nestled between an active volcano and natural hot springs.
Blood washes us clean like snow, life begins in death, and freedom is found in serving God.
As I stood up to shake the chlorine from my wrinkled toes and crawl into bed before sunrise, I prayed, God, search my heart and shine a light on what I believe. Send someone or some way to help me articulate my faith. My mind drifted to my favorite passage of scripture, Ezekiel 37, where God brings the prophet to a valley of dry bones and commands them to rise, put on new flesh, and live. The vision depicts God as the giver of life, who with His breath makes the spiritually dead come alive. Yet I felt as if the same breath was escaping through a hole in my lungs, the summer’s confusion asphyxiating my faith.
When the sun greeted me in the morning, I laced up my hiking boots, threw my swimsuit in a bag, and joined a guided rainforest tour advertised at the hostel’s front desk. There were a handful of people in the group, mostly honeymooners or 20-somethings in search of adventure. We had been walking on the trail for a few hours, stopping to watch howler monkeys scratch their armpits in the treetops, when we reached a clearing with a perfect view of Volcán Arenal. At the time it was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, spewing enormous balls of lava and ash since 1968, when it erupted and buried everything for miles.
That’s when I met her, the girl who would change my life. I was standing alone in a sunny corner of the lookout, watching fiery lava slide down the molten rock, when her voice interrupted my internal dialogue. “What is it to be a Christian?” she asked.
That’s what she said, word for word. How’d she know? Not only did she peg me as a Christ follower, but she seemed to be divinely prompted to investigate my belief system. It was a direct answer to my morning prayer, yet the question rattled me.
“I’ve heard of Jesus, but know nothing about Him. You follow Him, yes?”
Yes, a million times yes!
“What does He teach?”
Love, grace, death-to-life freedom. We had a lot to talk about, so I linked my arm around hers and pulled her back on the trail. “Let’s start with love.”
The girl, Michal, and her boyfriend were backpacking Latin America after recently completing their mandatory service in the Israeli army. She didn’t look the way I pictured Jewish women—with olive complexions and thick black locks. Instead, she had a small freckled nose, green eyes, and straw-colored hair. It was difficult to accept certain things about her Jewish heritage, she told me—for example, the empty purification rituals; men who demanded outward cleanliness but ogled women; and the strict rules about consuming foods but no filter for words hurled from the mouth.
I told her about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, its assault on legalism, and the reason behind the Law. I told her that we all fall short of the Law and that Jesus is grace personified, that the kingdom is upside down: blood washes us clean like snow, life begins in death, and freedom is found in serving God.
Traversing Scripture the same way we zigzagged through the rainforest that afternoon, we ended the day discussing God’s design for Israel, while floating in geothermal springs at Tabacón. Then we sat dangling our legs in the warm, still water—steam rising and disappearing beneath a blanket of twinkling stars—and I opened my pocket Bible to Ezekiel 37. I had always envisioned myself in that valley, dead as a doornail until God’s breath caused my bones to rattle and rise up with new life. But as I read with Michal, this jumped off the page: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (v. 11). For the first time, I realized that large portions of the Bible were not written for me—originally, anyway. I was a graft on God’s family tree. Meaning could be gleaned and applied for me, but Michal is of “the house of Israel.” In a way, it was written for her.
I thought I had traveled to Costa Rica to be like Ezekiel, speaking words that rescue people from death to life, but God carried me to its fertile valleys to show me that He is the one who rescues. He is able and He will do it. Whether I left Costa Rica boasting converted souls or merely filled holes, God was the breath behind it all.
The moon was bright against the cloudless sky, the silhouette of the volcano a giant sleeping rhino. Only a day had passed since I sat discouraged and confused at the hostel, unsure of how I got the wind knocked out of me. But somehow I was different, more alive, deeply inhaling the breath of a God whose agenda is life. I hugged Michal tightly and said goodbye, wondering if anything we talked about would stick with her. She was an answered prayer, a reminder that God is always at work, even if we don’t see His hands.