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It’s been over a decade since I last engaged in a short-term international mission trip involving hot days in medical/dental clinics, not drinking the water in rural areas, and eating a lot of rice and beans. So, this recent medical/dental mission trip to Panama brought back some of the feelings I have experienced in the past related to missions, yet had forgotten. And certainly, experiencing them in a different age and stage of life has brought to mind new and different reflections. Below are a few of the feelings I’m experiencing quite acutely in the last few days:

  1. You will be changed. Mission trips like this certainly provide work to change the lives of those served. They received medical and dental care. They got medicine to relieve pain or cure a stomachache. They even got advice on physical therapy, and stickers and smiles for their children. But more than that, those who served – both the Panamanian medical doctors and medical/dental students, and the U.S. medical professionals and volunteers – were given an even larger gift of changed hearts, softened souls, prayerful hope for God’s work in that rural community. The gift of a new culture’s perspective and the deep and abiding gift of God’s grace among people formerly unknown to you can create profound feelings of awe at God’s wide and deep love for all of humanity.
  2. You will be tired (but in a good way). So many times, we experience exhaustion from stress and overwork in our daily lives. But in the case of mission work, the exhaustion I have experienced was one of a labor of love. Yes, I didn’t sleep well. Yes, my showers were cold. Yes, I came back hot and gross most every day. And yes, I got home to Virginia and am still catching up on sleep. But when the work is meaningful and full of love and grace, the exhaustion is well worth it. And for me, this exhaustion leads me (forces me!) to stop and have prayerful reflection on my journey – rather than trying to do everything my first few days back.
  3. You will experience new ways to worship and serve God. At our church, we have a “River Road Way” – a kind of unwritten understanding of how we “do church.” We’re rather formal. We like liturgy. We’re not likely to have a lead guitarist in the sanctuary – ever. We have a large choir and a large organ and sing almost exclusively hymns. But around the world, God is worshipped, loved, and served in many different ways, in many different languages. We experienced a very Spirit-filled Christianity, full of prayers by multiple people simultaneously – in Spanish. We sang praise and worship music (which I’m sadly pretty out of touch with – haven’t kept up since the late 90s/early 2000s in youth group! – They kindly played a couple of old hymns for me…). On the mission field, while we recognize our differences, they simply matter very little. And thus I reflect on how much bigger God is than our worship style or the way in which we pray.
  4. You’ll have a spiritual connection with a whole new culture of people. While there were some literal mountain tops on this trip (see the attached photo!), there were also moments of spiritual mountain tops. God continually reminded us through daily devotionals together, prayerful missional engagement with the local community, and hands-on work that made us the very hands and feet of Christ, that we are spiritually connected with the people of Panama. God put a call on our lives to visit a foreign culture, to engage with them in most intimate spiritual ways. I saw God in so many places – from the laughter of little children (the same in every language!), the friendships among brothers and sisters in Christ (across broken language barriers, including my weak Spanish), and the joy of salvation and Kingdom growth through the witness and work of Christ’s disciples among the people of Panama.

My prayer of reflection on my journey is one I shared with the group on our last day in my Spanish-English devotional:

Dios de cuidado y compasión, has tocado nuestro corazón y nuestra mano para server esta gente, tus hijos, aquí.
God of care and compassion, you have touched our hearts and our hands to serve these people, your children, here.

Al salir por nuestras casas, que nunca olvidemos la bendición de su presencia en nuestras vidas:
As we leave for our journeys home, may we never forget the blessing of your presence in our lives:

“El Señor te bendiga y te guarde;
el Señor te mire con agrado y te extienda su amor;
el Señor te muestre su favor y te conceda la paz.” (Num. 6:22-27)

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:22-27)