Reflections and Updates on my Costa Rica/Panama Trip

I'm back. Our team of 31 spent ten days (Dec 27 - Jan 5) in Central America, beginning in Costa Rica and ending in Panama. Our primary purpose was to support the work God is doing through our missionary partners, Marvin and Vielka Cabrera. It was an extremely fruitful trip, and I was highly encouraged by our church's important partnership with the Cabreras. You can read more about the background in my pre-trip updates, found here. The team did well overall - we had some illness, one hospital visit for a broken arm and some sore bodies from all the hard work, but the team was flexible and grew in maturity and grace together.

As I return, I have a few reflections and updates to share. I write these reflections for a few purposes. One, to share them with you, because many of you have prayed for our team, supported our work financially or are simply interested in what went on in Costa Rica and Panama. Second, writing my reflections is helpful for me to process my experiences. I write for me as much as I do for you. Third, I hope you and I can learn something together. Whether it is an immediate application or possibly a lesson that comes in reading this a year or more in the future, the documentation of my reflections may serve a purpose entirely unknown to me at this time. So, here are six updates and reflections on my missions trip to Costa Rica and Panama.

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I am grateful for our partnership with the Cabreras

Prior to this trip, I only had a few brief interactions with Marvin and Vielka, but after spending a week with them, I am even more grateful for our partnership with them. They are hospitable, hard-working, patient, kind and joyful people who love Jesus and want to help others know and love Jesus as well. They are highly committed to their work, and it is a privilege for our church to partner with them.

Short-term missions is done best when it occurs in partnership with local, long-term missionaries. I would go so far as to say that unless this is the case, it probably should not be done at all. Over the past three years, we have sent teams of 26, 27 and 31 on three different trips to support God's work in partnership with the Cabreras. That requires a significant amount of resources - time, people, energy, finances, etc. People might question whether this is a good use of those resources. A valid question, which requires an honest answer.

I feel confident in saying yes - it is absolutely worth our resources. If it were not for our partnership with the Cabreras and the work God is doing through them, I would be far less sure. In partnering with the Cabreras, we are working with high-quality people, who remain on the field, and are engaged in work that aligns with our own mission and vision. I am grateful for them and excited for the future.

The need for Biblical Literacy and Leadership Development

The Ngäbe (Guaymi) are considered a "reached" people group, in the sense that there is an established and indigenously led church that exists among the Ngäbe. There are still needs and we are excited to partner with Marvin to help meet those needs. While there is an established church, there are still many who do not know Jesus as savior, and we are excited about seeing more and more hear the gospel message and respond in worship.

Marvin helps to mentor six different pastors who are leading Ngäbe churches, many of which have no place to meet. Homes are too small to host gatherings, so they often meet outside wherever they can find some shelter under trees. One way we can help is to assist in funding and building structures that can be used as a gathering place for local churches.

In conversation with Marvin and other missionaries working with the Ngäbe, there is also a need for ongoing discipleship, Biblical literacy and leadership development. In George Patterson's article, The Spontaneous Multiplication of Churches, he lists four simple things anyone can do to promote the multiplication and growth of disciples and local churches.

  1. Know and love the people you disciple.

  2. Mobilize your disciples to immediately edify those they are discipling

  3. Teach and practice obedience to Jesus' basic commands in love, before and above all else

  4. Build loving, edifying accountability relationships between disciples and churches in order to reproduce churches.

This is a great summary of what is needed. An increasing understanding of the Bible and obedience to its commands, while reproducing loving and intentional disciples who can help to reproduce loving and intentional churches. In many ways, the needs of the Ngäbe (Guaymi) church are simple, and quite similar to what is needed among our churches in the United States as well.

It's hard to be away from my family

Without question, the most challenging aspect of the trip for me was being away from my family. Leaving Megan home for ten days with three children four and under is not something I want to do lightly. I do not regret going on the the trip, and I am grateful for Megan's sacrifice to help make it happen, but it was hard - for them and for me. I love my family dearly, and have long been committed to being a present and intentional husband and father. I have seen or heard about too many pastors who sacrifice their family on the altar of ministry, and wind up with wives and children who grow to resent the local church.

Megan and I spoke with the kids often about the importance of daddy's trip. We told them that I was not "leaving them," they were "sending me." We prayed together with the kids on the last night I was home, helping them to see the importance of the work.

The communication was difficult, because the wifi was very poor at the location our team was lodging. Megan and I did our best to communicate, but it was hard to be away and have little opportunity to communicate. As I return, I am thankful for God's goodness toward my family while I was away. Overall, things went well at home. I am also thankful for our community - there were many family and friends who helped make things a little easier on Megan.

Getting to know other team members was invaluable

I loved the many conversations I had with team members throughout the trip. Whether over a meal, on the trail hauling blocks, sipping a ginger ale at the end of the night or playing a card game, it was invaluable to connect with other team members. As a pastor, I struggle with the challenge it is to not know everyone in our congregation in a deep way. I recognize it is not possible to know everyone well, and it is not the job to which I am called. I am called to equip the body, so we can all know and care for one another, because it isn't possible for any single person to know and care for everyone well. But it doesn't change my desire to know our congregation better. This trip was a great chance to deepen those relationships. 

As a small bonus, we also had two young men from Cities Church join us. Our church is in conversations and prayer about the possibility of two churches becoming one. As we look at the possibility of "marriage" with Cities Church, it was great to spend extra time with two of their young leaders. 

Shared experience, especially when it is in service to God's mission, plays an extremely important role in deepening relationships. I was able to do that with all sorts of different team members. As I reflect on my trip, this is one of the many great aspects I had the joy of experiencing.

It felt good to use my body to do hard work

My daily work is not physical. Whether I am reading, writing, meeting with someone, doing administrative work or planning for future ministry opportunities, I spend most of that time sitting. It felt amazing to use my body to do hard physical work. I grew up doing physical labor, and our bodies were made to be used, so I was grateful for the chance to get sore for the glory of God.

Don't get me wrong - it was exhausting. Hauling cinder blocks 1/4 of a mile through mountainous hiking trails was not easy. It took a toll on my body. I was blistered, tired, scraped, bruised and sore from the work. Each day, our team would end our work and be exhausted. It was not easy, but it felt so good!

Excited for the future

I left Panama excited for the future of our partnership with Marvin and Vielka. There is so much opportunity to continue serving God's mission together with the Cabreras. There many possibilities, but I wanted to mention a few specific ways I am excited to continue partnering.

First, there are multiple locations that still need a building for their church to meet. We are not at a loss for work projects that would be meaningful and help support the churches Marvin is mentoring. There is opportunity near where Marvin lives in Paso Canoas, Costa Rica. There is also opportunity near the area we spent time working in Panama. Prayer and discernment is needed for our church's leadership as we continue to plan intentional short-term trips to partner with God's work in Costa Rica and Panama.

Second, Marvin and Vielka are great to partner with. I am excited about the future, because I am excited about continuing to work with the Cabreras. Who knows what God might be kind enough to do through this partnership. I pray He continues to exceed our expecations with what He can do.

Third, last year's team helped construct a dorm building, so that Ngäbe kids in Costa Rica could live there and have access to schools. Currently, children need to travel multiple hours, by foot, just to make it to school. During the rainy season, this journey is often impossible to make. Because of the challenge that exists in getting to school, many end their education early in life. The dorm building would help up to eight kids live there and get an education, while being cared for by Christian dorm parents. There is a need for funds to be raised in order to make this vision become reality. Pray with me about how you, our church and I might be able to help support the hopes Marvin has for this dorm building

Want to hear more?

Maybe this short update peaked your interest? If so, send me an email and I would love to talk with you more - whether it be over coffee, email, lunch, phone, or whatever we can figure out.