Saturday, July 5, 2014

Costa Rica Missions Update #9

           It's not easy leaving family, especially when there is a chance that you may never see them again this side of heaven. Last night and this morning were all about saying good-bye – hugs were given, kisses were exchanged, gifts were given, contact info was written, tears were shed – and, to continue my Forrest Gump sub-theme, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The Claw and her victim
            Yesterday we left early for the river. After a brief stop at the Ortega Evangelical Free Church to drop off some lunch supplies, we arrived at the dock. Our river safari didn’t have an auspicious start. Soon after we launched, a gust of wind blew Nancy’s hat off her head. As she reached around to grab it, she caught the side of Karen’s nose with her fingernail. Ten minutes of bleeding later, Karen was fully coagulated and Nancy had earned a new nickname – “The Claw”.

            It wasn’t long after we had set off that we saw a couple boats gathered together. One of the first things that I learned when on safari in Namibia is if you see a few cars together, then head that direction because there is something there to see. Sure enough, when we pulled up we saw a family of white-faced monkeys climbing through the trees. Cute little things, although with the new Planet of the Apes movie coming out on Friday, I kept expecting them to pull out nets so they could capture and enslave us (one of them had that compassionate Cornelius look to him, though, so I had hopes that we might have an ally in our eventual escape).
"Hey, let's see if we can get this one IN the boat!"

            I proudly lay claim to the title of “First Guy to Spot a Crocodile in the Water” (a not often touted, yet, among certain groups, highly coveted appellation). He was drifting off to our right, but by the time we got there he was gone. Our disappointment was soon forgotten when our guide spotted another crocodile, and was able to coax it over to the boat by hitting the water with branches. He even got him to lift out of the river, which affirmed our growing assessment of our guide as muy loco.
Solomon, up close and personal
            The highlight, however, was Solomon. I’ve received many introductions over the last week; this one I will never forget. Solomon is the oldest crocodile living in that part of the river. As we pulled into his little niche, he snorted, then, in a scene out of a National Geographic special (or a cheesy made-for-cable movie called Crocnado), he slowly moved his enormous body toward us. When he reached us, he lumbered to the right and swam around the boat. That’s when our guide said, “Solomon is the king of this river, but he is our friend. Touch him.” Remembering the muy loco-ness of our guide, I laughed along with everyone else. But then I thought, “Maybe he’s serious.”

Just after I "reached out and touched someone"
On a whim, I quickly moved to the other side of the boat (Solomon had rounded the front and was making his down the other side), then looked at the guide. He nodded his head, so after Solomon’s toothy mouth and massive cranium eased by (I may be loco, but I’m not stupido), I reached out and touched his back. As I said yesterday, it was surprisingly rubbery as I pushed down against his skin. Then I grabbed one of the ridges and gave it a tug. Best way to describe its feel is if you grab the cartilage portion of your nose and give it a little back and forth twist (gently now, no need to cause bodily injury). All in all, it was the most amazing thing I’ve felt since touching a giraffe’s tongue at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (just as exotic, yet without the same ick factor).

            On our way back to dock, my fears of a monkey take-over were nearly realized. When
The one on the left was El Jeffe
we pulled in amongst some shoreline trees, a group of the little white-faced beasts attacked our boat. Everyone else, oblivious to the danger, was enjoying having them climbing around and jumping from the trees to the boat and back to the trees (I’m attaching a link to a youtube video should you dare to watch it – NSFW – I, however, wasn’t taken in by their cute little antics. At one point I locked eyes with the one that seemed to be their leader, and I could swear I saw him mouth the words, “¡Eres mio, gringo!”

In that moment, one of my life mottos flashed into my mind – I refuse to be intimidated by a primate (I was very excited when it did, because up until this point in my life that particular motto has seemed fairly extraneous). So, I tried to make my eyes as beady as his, I pointed my finger at him, and I said, “¡Pruebalo, Mono!” Our eyes remained unblinking for what seemed like minutes, before he finally broke off, gave a monkey call, and retreated with the rest of his simian army back into the forest. Most people think being a missions team leader is mostly just administration and taking care of the finances. But there are certain situations where it is utterly rife with danger.
Pastor Jose celebrating the Fourth of July

After our river adventure, we had lunch with Pastor Villegas (same pastor as Wednesday, just a new spelling) from the Ortega Evangelical Free Church, then headed back to the hotel. Later in the evening, we had a farewell dinner with the Fuente de Vida gang (complete with Stars & Stripes funfetti cake [which Nancy had smuggled down from Denver] and glow stick jewelry), then a wonderful final worship service.

I’m writing this from the van on our way back to San Jose. Pastor Jose is in a bit of a rush to get down in time for the Costa Rica World Cup game, so he is causing much consternation within our van with his passing. I just figure that if I haven’t been killed yet on a Costa Rican road with all the crazy passing I’ve witnessed over the years, then God’s got another plan for me.

Please be praying for Karen, Mike, Joyce, and Zac as they fly back home tomorrow. They are all very sad to leave, but very happy to be reunited with their families.
Karen successfully cheering up a sick Madeline

Please also be praying for my family. Madeline has been sick with a stomach thing for the past couple of days. She’s feeling a bit better right now, but it comes and goes. The one I’m most concerned about it Nancy. She is miserable, and is thankfully sleeping in the back of the van right now. Our first stop when we get to the San Jose area will be to drop her off at Eduardo’s house in Tres Rios, where she can hopefully sleep this stomach ailment off.

This will be my last update for a few days. I’ll write one more toward the end of our time here filling you in on the ministry meetings we’re able to have over the next few days, and also giving you some final thoughts about the trip.

Thank you again for your prayers and financial sacrifices that helped to get us here. Each of us is coming back different than when we left. It will be exciting to see what God does with the seeds He planted in us. One quick story about seeds planted. I mentioned before my buddy, Tim Stairs, who translated for me this past week. Tim and his wife, Pam, first came to Costa Rica on a trip I led back in 2003, then they came back on my next trip in 2005. Now they are living here full-time serving the Lord. As I said, you never know what God is going to do with the seeds He plants on a mission trip. May God bless you all.

Final Updates:

Vortex: Totally gone – to where, I have no clue. I have heard rumors though of a Portuguese Quaker community in Guatemala that’s mysteriously losing its wicker furniture one piece at a time. Hmmmm…

Smush Frog: I was so excited this morning when I saw that smush frog was no longer there! Then I walked a little farther and realized that he had become so dried out that he had simply been dislodged from his asphalt abode and was now being used in some sort of vehicular shuffle board.

Tico Time: Later…
A new friend I met upon arriving in Ortega

Another view of our guide tempting death

Pastor Villegas, Pastor Jose, and Sharon

Lunch in Ortega

For those of you who know me well, you will certainly
note the irony of me looking under the hood of a car

When you're exhausted and a bit punchy, you discover
the freaky things that you have in common

My daughter is the only one any of us has seen who can
actually lick their elbow (go ahead, I know you want to try)
Dennis and Nanda - an amazing INCRESE couple

Madeline and Sharon

The church youth showing off their 4th of July glow

Friday, July 4, 2014

Costa Rica Missions Update #8

Happy Independence Day everyone!!! We’ve got a few surprise celebration plans for the team tonight that I’ll tell you about tomorrow.

Question: What’s wet and rubbery, with hard ridges on its back? (I’ll give you the answer at the end of the update)

Joyce passing out VBS gift bags
            It’s been a great day so far, but I’ll wait until tomorrow to fill you in. There will be plenty of time to write on our long drive back to San Jose. Today I want to give a VBS and Soccer Tournament wrap-up (and, yes, it is soccer tournament, not soccer camp as I’ve been saying – one the joys of delegating is that I don’t have to have a clue what’s going on).

            The final day of VBS saw 115 kids attending. Most all of the kids were very disappointed that the time was ending. At the end of the day, gift bags were given to each of the children. Then, for some of the kids who were able to come up and say all their verses, they were given Bibles.

Soccer Tournament Championship Game
            The finish of the soccer tournament was quite dramatic. The quality level wasn’t quite the same as Brazil vs. Colombia World Cup futbol (which I currently have showing in the background), but it was pretty intense. I threw my lot in with the blue team, mainly because they had one player who (as Zac put it) looked like a Navy SEAL. Zac was leaning toward the yellow team. Well, as the blue team quickly proved, it doesn’t matter if you own a howitzer if you’ve lost the aiming mechanism. While the SEAL blasted errant ball after errant ball, the yellow team ran well-practiced plays. Final score – Yellow-4 Blue-3.

One of the children who earned a Bible by reciting verses
            Two big take-aways from the past four days: 1) What a blessing it is to work as a team. Mike led the devotional this morning and talked about how we’ve blended together as one big family – it doesn’t matter whether we’re Americano or Tico – we are one in heart, in service, and in the Family of God. We’ve built relationships with each other, with the INCRESE gang, and with members of the church that will last for years to come.

            2) When people sacrifice for God, lives change. Each day at VBS and soccer, the Gospel of salvation through a simple faith in Jesus was preached. Each day, children and youth responded. Yesterday, when the children were given an opportunity to receive Christ, 60% responded. By my math, that’s a bunch. Now, we understand that at that age, all levels of commitment are actually made. So, it’s such a wonderful blessing to know that Fuente de Vida has a follow-up program in place ready to keep up the connections with each and every one of these kids.

            Going to keep the update short today. I’ve got to take a little time to go over my sermon for tonight. As always, thanks for your prayers.

Quick Vortex Update: I think the Vortex has gotten bored toying with us, and is ready to move on. It returned Nancy’s gum and a few other assorted items yesterday afternoon. Then, last night I was awakened by some rustling in our room. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and discovered five disoriented cleaning women huddled together. They were murmuring things like “El Vortex habla y yo obedezco” and “No prestes atención al hombre detrás de la cortina.” I had no clue what they were saying, so I just ushered them outside and quickly locked the door behind them.
Un cocodrilo gigante

Question: What’s wet and rubbery, with hard ridges on its back?

Answer: The guy to the right. How do I know? Personal experience. More about crocodiles, monkeys, and sad farewells tomorrow.
Drama presented between soccer games

The championship team with their prizes

Zac and Madeline attend a youth strategy meeting for
reaching their neighborhood for Christ. Apparently,
in Costa Rica, as in the U.S., it is impossible to have a
youth get-together without pizza

Mike and I visit a recuperating Pastor Elias at his home

Working to prepare the VBS gift bags

VBS face painting

A final day snack of hot dogs

A VBS girl

A trio of VBS boys

The VBS team

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Costa Rica Missions Update #7


The Vortex: I know that many of you have been greatly anticipating the results of last night’s towel experiment. What I’ve discovered is that the force that I’m dealing with is much more crafty that I first believed. In a sense, when I laid out the trap with the cheese sitting on the trigger, the Vortex ate the cheese, removed the spring and the bar from the trap, and built a perpetual motion engine.

The offending sheet, folded as I found it
We started with three towels. They were still there this morning (along with another three, but that was my own doing – I had gotten extra towels because Nancy’s leg had temporarily swollen up to the size of Luxembourg and we had to keep it elevated [it’s looking much better today]). However, if you remember, I told you yesterday that after tearing apart my bed looking for the sheet, I concluded that the cleaning lady had been taken before she could leave it. Around midnight last night, I decided I had done enough work and it was time to get under the covers. As I shifted my pillow, there was my sheet – sitting on the bed, staring at me with fear in its low thread count eyes. I could only imagine what it had been through the past nine hours.

One more incident that has me especially worried. Madeline woke up this morning very tired. She said she had experienced a very vivid dream. It involved spinning for a time, and then waking up in a small town she had never seen before. After briefly exploring, she was met by a one-legged Admiral of the Spanish Armada named Captain Marco, who immediately introduced her to his pet circus monkey, Pedro. Captain Marco and Pedro then took Madeline on a tour of the town. She doesn’t remember much beyond that except that the hair of everyone she saw was slightly damp and that the place was immaculate. Very curious…

Smush Frog: Still there, although the rain yesterday has given him a much healthier sheen.

Tico Time: I’ll probably get back to you later on that…pura vida.

Madeline telling us about Paul and Silas in jail
We started off the day today with Madeline leading our team devotional. She was a little nervous at first, especially when all the kitchen ladies crowded around, too. But she did a fantastic job. She taught from Acts 16:31, and talked about how simple the Gospel is. It’s not about how good you are or what you do. The verse simply says, “Believe in the name of Jesus and you will be saved.” She talked about how we need to make sure we don’t complicate the truth about salvation by putting in a bunch of rules. She was awesome (and I was misty).

            Joyce had a wonderful time with the ladies yesterday. She was able to share God’s truth with 35 women – encouraging them and loving on them. They loved it so much that when it came time to take a break, they begged her not to stop. So, they quickly grabbed a coffee and a snack, then went right back into the room and started up again. It was so great hearing Joyce talk about it. She said she was over the top with the women. I know how enthusiastic she can be – I’ve seen her near the top. But over? Must have been an amazing time. Sorry, I don't have any pics of that time - maybe later.

            Zac is continuing to build into the youth. Last night when we were coming back from Ortega, Zac was heading out with the INCRESE guys to play pick-up soccer. He looks for every opportunity to get with these kiddos.

The Ortega Evangelical Free Church
            Yesterday in Ortega was a truly special time. Ortega is not too far away, but it took us about 45 minutes to get there because of the rough road. When we finally arrived and stepped out of the van, it was a bit of a shock to find that any place could be hotter and more humid than Santa Cruz (add to that heat and humidity, a complete lack of air movement – gasp!).

            Ortega is a poverty-stricken area. The economy is based on melon and sugar-cane farming. As a result of this seasonal agriculture, many of the people only work four months out of the year. It is also very isolated. Every few years, the rains get so bad that the entire area is isolated by flooding for a month or two at a time. There is also a lot of infighting amongst the churches in the area. Many are very territorial, and truly don’t play well with others.

Enjoying getting to know Pastor Jose Viegas and his wife
            The uncomfortable environment was quickly forgotten though when we met Pastor Jose Viegas and his wife. We sat around his table and talked about his church (the Ortega Evangelical Free Church), his testimony, and his relationship with INCRESE. Those are the times for me that make all the work and sweat of missions worthwhile – to hear a man of God talk with love about his people and his church; to see the fruits of his sacrifice and service; to pray with him and encourage him to keep fighting the good fight. What a blessing! What an honor! (The fact that he served us coffee and the most amazing sweet bread we ever tasted didn’t hurt the experience either!)

Teaching some Ortega pastors and church leaders
            When the time for the training came, my part focused on the heart of the shepherd. My first session was the True Shepherd. The receptiveness of the 15 pastors and church leaders that were there was overwhelming. They seemed hungry for the teaching, and very open, even when I had some harsher words for them (exhorting, not finger-pointing).

            Then, Mike tag-teamed in. I thought his opening was perfect. He compared our training time to a double-feature movie. My two sessions were the movies, while he was the cartoon sandwiched in the middle – hilarious and totally inaccurate. But it won the people over immediately, and they tracked with him through some very difficult material as he explained why we can trust that our Bibles are the true Word of God.

            I mentioned Nancy’s swelling leg earlier. The limb expansion project began during my
Mike talking about why we can trust
our Bibles
first talk, and by the time Mike started it looked like she was walking on a mini-Zeppelin. Since this had never happened to her before, we were naturally concerned. So, while Mike was teaching, Nancy walked around a bit to try to get the circulation going, and drank a very large bottle of water. When the time came for my final session, Jose asked me if we should just skip the last session so that we could get Nancy to a farmacia so someone could look at her.

            Suddenly, I was transported back to the first time I brought a team to Costa Rica. Madeline had just been admitted to the hospital, and it was time for me to get to the airport for a midnight flight. After praying through that situation, I left Madeline in the Lord’s hands and went to where God was calling me. I knew then, as I knew last night, that there is no better place to trust my family than in the hands of God. So, after praying it through I said, “God’s called us here. Let’s finish this last session. God’s got Nancy taken care of.” (BTW, Nancy was in full agreement.) Once I said that, I felt such a peace about the situation, as well as that little rush of having just passed another test.

A few of the children of Ortega
            By the time we left, Nancy’s swelling had started to go down a bit. We debated whether we could get to town faster on the pot-holed roads or if we borrowed a canoe and followed the new river that been carved into the countryside by the sweat that had poured off of Mike, Tim, and me. We opted for the roads. When we finally got back to town, we came across Zac (ex-Air Force medic and occasional superhero) who recommended a little military magic, and, as I mentioned before, she’s doing much better today.

            I’ll fill you in tomorrow on the final VBS and soccer camp day. By the way, I was incorrect with the numbers before (it’s hard to get an accurate count, because the kids keep coming throughout the day). The attendance has steadily increased, and we’re well past 100 now. I’ll give you a final day count when I get it. Also, I’ll give you the low-down on our visit with Pastor Elias.

Things to pray for:
·      Pray that God continues the great work He has begun in the lives of these children and youth. Pray that this was more than just a fun week, but a life-changing week as well.

·      Pray that exact same prayer for each of the team members. God’s doing some interesting things.

·      Tomorrow, we’re going on a river cruise (by “cruise”, I mean small boat that we hope doesn’t tip over into the crocodile-infested waters). Pray for safety.

·      Tomorrow night will be our final church service at Fuente de Vida. I think we all will have a hard time leaving our new family here. Pray that it is a special time of growing closer to God and to each other.

As always, thank you so much for your sacrifice in sending us here, and for your continued prayers.

By the way, I was just going over this blog prior to posting. I'm finding it a little Yohn-centric. My apologies - that was not intended. I'll make up for it tomorrow with all the final day pics.
Madeline enjoying sweet bread in Ortega

Mike preparing to attack a well-deserved
post-teaching banana split

Madeline and Pastor Jose