My most recent trip to Panama was spent in business mode. Traveling with a trade delegation from Kansas City, I visited the Panama Canal, ports on both sides of the isthmus, logistics outfits, diplomats and U.S. companies. It was interesting to see what makes Panama tick on a commercial level, but it wasn't my idea of an ideal trip.
Before I joined the workforce in July of last year, my international trips were focused almost exclusively on building God's kingdom through missions. Crazy adventures marked with whimsical itineraries were part of the territory, especially on journeys to China. In 2006, I visited Panama with a different agenda, though the elements of danger and stupidity were still present.
Our mission was much simpler than in China. Instead of bringing souls into saving faith, our goal was to save ourselves from all that can go wrong on a tropical island known for its role as a former penal colony and covered with virgin triple-canopy jungle. Not a mission trip per se, but during the expedition I learned a lot about preparation and how it pertains to my faith. It also deepened my hunger for international travel, a desire I feel is God-birthed.
This year, I thought I'd leave Panama without any kind of spiritual experience. I did visit a cathedral, but it was cold and empty. I did pray a few times, but up until the last night, work had sucked much of the life and energy out of the journey.
But a window of free time opened up, and I spent it with a friend who coincidentally had flown in from the U.S. to speak at a men's retreat. He had recently lived in Panama City for six months and had just moved back home to the States. The day I found out I was going to Panama was the day he moved back. I was sad, but then I found out that the retreat would bring him back at the same time as my trip.
When his plane touched down, he invited me to hang out, but only if I was "up for a little praying." Bone-dry spiritually, I took him up on the offer and hopped a cab to a small church.
We gathered around a table, three white guys and five Hispanics, all men save the one woman who had come with her husband. They started in Spanish. By the fourth prayer, I was understanding about a third of what was going on. I was last, and I thanked God (in English, of course) for the privilege of being around people that wanted so desperately to see his kingdom come. I also asked for him to give my friend strength as he spoke to the more than 100 men registered for the retreat.
Afterward, on the way to a restaurant, my friend and I rode with Andy, one of the men administering the retreat. In what was an affirmation for me that the bond of Christian brotherhood is vastly different and stronger than any other fraternity, he shared his testimony with utter transparency.
Andy's father had lived a double-life for more than 20 years, visiting another each week while his wife and kids thought he was teaching night classes at the college where he was a professor. When Andy's family caught wind of the rumor, they followed their dad and found him coming out of the woman's apartment.
A sick feeling still rips at Andy's gut every time that image comes to mind. His mother's pain was similar. Confronted, begged for her to let him stay, claiming that he didn't love the other woman. Andy's mother consented, but the wounds persisted. Heartbroken, they decided to get him help for what was nothing less than an addiction. They tried everything in the realm of superstition. When nothing worked, they gave a Christian pastor a chance.
That was the turning point. Andy's mother accepted Christ and forgave her husband. He eventually followed suit. He mailed his mistress a Bible. In it, he highlighted the verses that God had used to deliver him from her grasp. That was his last contact with her.
All this time, Andy was still an unbeliever, working his way up the corporate ladder, showing little regard for spiritual things. He found a beautiful wife and earned plenty of money. But there was unease, and his father's legacy began to creep up on him. Around the time the whole family moved to Panama from Colombia, Andy began thinking that an affair of his own wouldn't be too bad of a deal. He traveled often for business, and a lot of the men he knew had engaged in similar flings.
Soon, his wife began, ironically, going to church with his parents. She drew him there, and he stubbornly came along. He became a believer before ever acting on his adulterous thoughts, and now his whole family knows and serves Jesus.
"We must remember," he told me, "when we are ministering to men, we are not ministering just to men. We are ministering to whole families. Tomorrow, we will be ministering to 100 families at our retreat."
Andy knows firsthand the devastating impact a man has when he shirks his fatherly and husbandly responsibilities. I do too, having come from a somewhat broken home.
I shared my testimony with Andy as he drove me back to the hotel. He told me that he is planning to quit his high-paying job to become a missionary to a West African country. His co-workers will think he's crazy, but he prays that it will be an opportunity for him to share the Gospel.
I realized that he had touched on the theme of both of our stories. As in our lives, God's plan often looks ridiculous. But with him, broken families and illogical career choices are chances for unworldly forgiveness, power and sacrifice to be made known. With a God who writes the rules, impossible circumstances become prime opportunities.