Well we left bright and early at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning heading for LAX and met up with the rest of the team. Travel, parking, and security checks all went real smooth as our team of 10 travelers (Lizard and his family are already there) checked in with twenty-one 50-pound bags, plus ten carry-ons. We get our money's worth when it comes to shipping cargo. Our gear includes three Swift Water Rescue kits, three Auto Extrication kits, some brush equipment, 80 rescue straps and carabiners, New Testaments, and teaching aids (laptops and curriculum).
Our team consists of:
Greg Gibson, Dan Rodriguez, Pat Stilson, Bob Ameche, Jorge Perez, Joe Lindaman, Dave Kromka, Dan Elizarraras (and Ethan), Russ Fagan, Corey Lovers, Marcos Barragan, and Pastor Bert Almazan. We have a mix of L.A. City, L.A. County, Ventura County, and Rancho Cucamonga firefighters.
We had our first devotion inside the airport terminal, led by Greg, which focused on two scriptures: Phil. 3:20 reminding us that "our citizenship is in heaven" and 2 Cor. 5:14-21 which has several key points. 1) Since Christ died for us, we aught to live for Him, 2) All those in Christ are a new creation. 3) He has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 4) We are ambassadors for Christ, and as ambassadors it is our responsibility to deliver the message of The King.
Our flight left as scheduled at 6:15 and so began our trip to Panama. We were greeted at the airport by Lizard (and his son Ethan), Pastor Bert, and a couple brothers from his church. It is always good to see Bert. He is continuing to minister to fire service personnel in Panama, as well as to some of the indigenous peoples in the eastern-most jungles of this country.
Our living conditions are very nice. The fire station we are staying at is brand new and they have really gone out of their way to accommodate us. They emptied out the dining room and filled it with beds, as well as offered up the officer’s quarters for us to sleep in. Both rooms are air- conditioned and it makes for a good night’s sleep. Daytimes are hot and humid, but the evenings cool down some.
Our first morning devotion (in Panama) was led by Russ. He read and discussed Proverbs 3:5-7. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths. Be not wise in your eyes; fear the LORD , and depart from evil." The message was straight forward; our trust must be placed upon Him, not only for this trip, but always.
Today was Sunday and Pastor Bert conducted church at the fire station for everyone who has arrived at this point...about 30-40 or so. His message was from I Kings 18, and although given in Spanish, I understand it to focus on verse 21, where Elijah challenged the people of Israel by saying, "If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word." He continued with the story of Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal. Their pleas to Baal went unanswered but God answering Elijah's prayer by sending fire from heaven to consume his offering. Bert later challenged the firefighters in attendance to make a decision themselves about who they intended to follow. Many made a decision this morning and prayed to receive Christ.
This evening we had a Panamanian politician, the equivalent of a senator, stop by to see what is going on. Not much training is offered to the fire personnel here, and it is a very special event for firefighters from the United States to be here and offer them some training. The people have been very gracious and they have given us such a warm welcome. Tomorrow we'll begin our training with all the personnel in Zone 11 (three stations east of the Panama Canal), as well as 2 representatives from all the other zones throughout Panama. We are expecting about 60-65
Dave led this mornings devotions and read from Phil. 3:12-16. He focused on verse 13 and 14, which read, "Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." The message was on forgetting the past and pushing forward to God's call on our lives. He related how this trip for him was really moving him out of his comfort zone, but what God is calling him toward. Many commented on how this trip, or previous trips, had felt the same for them.
While we were having devotions in the Comandante's office, Pastor Bert walked in and took 100 of the New Testaments we had brought and walked out. He then passed them out to any of the bomberos who wanted one, and offered to have a morning devotion with them. It sounded like almost all took him up on his offer, so he started this morning in the Gospel of Mark and will continue through this Gospel for the rest of the week. Amazing!
Today was the first real day of training and I counted about 70 in the classroom. We brought 80 rescue straps/carabiners, so and only have a few left over. We started with introductions and were very well received. The morning's training focused on the use of the rescue strap, and in the afternoon we split up in groups and gave some brief introductions on the tools/operations that we would be training on these next three days. Fifteen of the driver/operators were taken aside and spent some time with Pat and Jorge going over some pumping operations on a couple of the newer pumping apparatus they had recently received. Their department is experiencing some growth spurts regarding newer apparatus, but with limited related training, so this was very beneficial for the driver/operators.It was a learning experience for Pat and Jorge as well, having to operate a pump without the luxury of hydrants on every corner.
Tomorrow we will be split up in three groups and heading off to different locations for hands-on training on: Swift Water Rescue, Auto Extrication, and Brush/Wildland Operations. We will be working in high temperatures/humidity, with tools and equipment, and on rocky terrain (along the river's edge), so pray for safe operations for all. We are also expecting a high-ranking general from Panama City to stop by and observe our training. Again, there are bomberos from throuhout Panama who have traveled here to attend this training, so he obviously wants to see what’s going on total.
Devotions this morning, at 0600, were led by Jorge and his message was on "Truth in Love". He started with John 13:34 & 35, "I give you a new commandment - to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples - if you have love for one another." Genuine love for another is a sign of true discipleship, and by contrast, those who fail to demonstrate love for one another would have a hard time convincing anyone they were true believers in Christ. He referred to one of John's sayings about presenting the gospel, "Love earns our right to speak the truth." From there several scriptures were read which connected the Spirit with Truth, such as John 4:24, "God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth." We then discussed some of the truth missing from our current gospel, namely the omission of sin, and how a sinner needs to understand their need of forgiveness in order for redemption to make any sense. Jesus once tried to have 'new believers' acknowledge their sin, and the conversation became very confrontational, ending with these 'new believers' picking up stones to stone Him. Read John 8:30-59.
Meanwhile, Pastor Bert continued devotions with the 70 or so bomberos up stairs. I asked how many were attending and he said, "All of them" and that "Things are going really great."
So today began our first day of hands-on training. The Auto Extrication group had three cars that were completely taken apart using some of the tools we brought and their Holmatro Unit (that we were able to provide a new hose and fittings for). It was hot and humid, but manageable. The Brush/Wildland group started with some classroom training and then they went out to cut some line - under fire conditions. Joe is such a veteran in the brush arena. His assistants, Russ and Marcos, even got some lessons on the use of a machete. We were able to purchase these and some other hand tools for brush at a hardware store in Panama City. The Swift Water group had a grueling day down at the river's edge...all day. We got a bit warm mid-afternoon and had to take a dip in the river to re-energize, but don't tell the other guys.
While all three groups were out and about training, the "high-ranking" fire department official I mentioned last night showed up. I stand corrected. He wasn't just any high-ranking chief, he was the "Fire Chief" (Director General) of all Panama. He came to the Chepo station to meet us and see what was going on. He had lunch there and talked with Greg at length. He was very thankful for us being there and wanted to arrange some tours for us. Greg politely declined explaining our full schedule and limited free time, to which The Director said, "When I see you on your next visit we'll make sure you have more time." His conversation with Greg was extremely welcoming. It appears we have a completely open door for future trips. Some of the bomberos from other parts of Panama (who have traveled here to attend our training) are asking when we will visit their 'zone'. Pastor Bert has some more scheduling to do.
Tomorrow will be another day of training like today, just rotate groups around. After training, Bert has arranged for us to go to a local hospital for visitations and prayer. Thursday after training, we plan to visit an orphanage.
Things are going very well. We'd appreciate continued prayer for safety while out training. At the river today, I was digging through some vegetation along with rivers edge demonstrating various anchor-points for tying off your lines, when the group behind me started making some noise...sort of like "watch out", which caught my attention. It seems there are some poisonous snakes around here. My Spanish isn't real good (not at all!) but I think they were describing a coral snake. Thanks again for your support.
This morning’s devotion was led by Corey. As you know Corey is one of the four new members on this FFC team. Since we're on the subject of the four new members, it was brought up today during our evening hot-wash how each one of us have been so blessed by these new members and how each member has contributed so much. We always are amazed at the teams God puts together and how perfect they always fit in. Corey's devotion was on Ephesians 6:10-17, "The Whole Armor of God". He shared how it really wasn't until he applied this scripture to his everyday life that he could finally feel the peace of God. How "The Armor" has given him the courage and ability to get out of his comfort zone, like taking the mission trip he is on right now. A few members shared from these familiar verses and reminded us that "we don't wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness" (v-12) and that we have offensive weapons to use such as "the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God" (v-17) and "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit" (v-18). I encourage you to read this portion of scripture. You will be blessed.
Pastor Bert continued his morning devotions with all the firefighters, as they continue through the book of Mark. He again gave the firefighters an opportunity to receive Jesus into their hearts and many responded. Please be in prayer for the work that is being done through these devotions. There's even a few who have asked to be baptized, so keep this in prayer.
Today was our second full day of training and all the teams were anxious to implement minor changes due to lessons learned from yesterday’s instruction. As was hoped, everyone's day seemed to go a bit smoother and more time efficient. There was one minor injury reported from the auto extrication team but nothing that five stitches couldn't fix. I know you're wondering who it was but let's just say we're leaving behind one handsome, yet battle scarred, Panamanian firefighter. As usual, God was faithful and blessed us with His presence at all three training sites; some of us had the opportunity to share our testimonies to the entire group (in Spanish), and others observed our Panamanian brothers/sisters spontaneously huddle up for prayer before one of their challenging scenarios. A lot of the firefighters have expressed their gratitude for the training but even more so for the camaraderie, fellowship and the morning devotions. God is definitely at work here and His Spirit is moving greatly!
This evening we were supposed to go to a hospital for visitation/prayer, but that plan later changed to visiting a convalescent home, and later yet to attending a church service at one of the churches that have been providing our meals. Well, a couple of us were just too wore out to go and stayed back to clean up and turn-in early. Understandable, because it was hot today, but one rule of short-term missions is to remain flexible because plans often change, and if God re-directs it's for a reason. As it turned out, a couple of us were asked to speak at this church, a message was given, the gospel presented, and a two people in church responded in prayer. God knew. At this church we also met a flight attendant for Copa Airlines, named Evelyn. Our original assessment team met her on their flight back to LAX. When she saw the Firefighters For Christ logo on their shirt, she became so excited that we were doing ministry in her country, and she has been praying for us since. Needless to say, she was excited to see that the team she has been praying for was attending a service at her home church...of all the churches in Panama! Yeah, God re-directs for a reason.
Tomorrow will be our last day of training and the teams will be rotating to their third and final discipline. It should be another excellent day. Please keep everyone in prayer for the new relationships that will be formed tomorrow and of course for continued safety. We also ask you to join the team in prayer as we seek God's direction concerning our program on Friday. We are planning some scenarios for our teams to perform in the morning, but have been asked if we could schedule the official closing ceremony at 5:00, so some of their families could attend. And there is always the possibility of other high-ranking fire department or governmental officials to show up.
Thanks again for the support.
This morning’s devotion came from sections of the Gospel of John, and was pretty much the same message given at the church service last night. It is a brief look at a man called Nicodemus. We meet him in chapter 3 and learn that he is a Pharisee (a strict follower of the law) and member of the Jewish ruling council. He approaches Jesus under the cloak of darkness (probably because of fear of being seen by others), yet submits to Him by calling him Rabbi, and acknowledges that Jesus has come from God. Scripture doesn't record that he asked a question, but Jesus answered, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Jesus then contrasts a physical birth versus a spiritual birth and eventually speaks the most quoted verse in the Bible, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
This first encounter with Jesus had an impact on Nicodemus to the extent that the next time we see him, he is speaking to his peers (the chief priests and Pharisees) in defense of Jesus. For this, he took some ridicule. Read chapter 7:32-52
The final mention of Nicodemus is found in chapter 19 (verses 38-42) following the crucifixion of Jesus. Scripture records that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea "...took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury." What a task this must have been. How do you physically remove a body nailed to a cross? How do you even lower the cross to begin this process? It must have been a bloody affair. The garments of Joseph and Nicodemus must have literally been covered with the blood of Jesus as they removed his body, carried it away, prepared it for burial, and set it in the tomb. And certainly the removal of his body would have been a very public event.
My prayer is to walk with Jesus in the light of day, endure any ridicule that may come my way, and remind myself daily of the price that was paid.
Today was the last day of hands-on training and things went very well. The weather has been great. Lizard (who has been here with his family for the past three weeks) said that up until now, they have had at least some rain, daily. The bomberos have been awesome. They have had such great attitudes after long days of training. We had another minor injury today (in Swift Water). One of our guys hurt his back after a prussic locked up while he was running full speed on a belay line. A bit too enthusiastic. Pray for healing for Abraham.
Tonight we went to the local hospital and visited with various patients and offered to pray for them. Everyone wanted prayer, nobody declined. Pastor Bert put together some goody bags for them and we also gave them the Gospel of John (in Spanish). In the U.S., I would anticipate resistance or skepticism, but here, our gifts and visits were readily received. Our last visit was with the nursing staff in the maternity ward. They, too, received our offer for prayer. When we finished, one of them (another Christian) said that she and another believer really needed that. There was some sort of spiritual battle going on and they were praying for encouragement and support. We may never know the details, but it was good to be a part of whatever God is doing in their situation.
So tomorrow is the last day. We are planning a morning classroom session, then some time at the river where they can demonstrate everything they have learned; cutting brush, cutting up a car, and river rescue. Several have asked Pastor Bert if they can be baptized, so we are making this available after the demo is complete. This will be a first. In the afternoon, we will have a couple hours to clean up and start to pack, then we have a closing ceremony planned for 5:00. There will definitely be fire department and governmental officials in attendance, as well as family of some of our students. After certificates are passed out and the official ceremony concludes, we will have a big barbecue for all and some time to say our farewells.
Pray that the gospel is clearly presented and that we finish strong. Pray for healing for Abraham, that demonstrations go smoothly, and no further injuries. Pray for continued good weather and the baptism afterward. Pray for discipleship for those making decisions for Christ.
Marcos led devotions this morning and used the end of Proverbs 21:26 to relate a story he experienced. "...but the righteous gives and does not hold back." He has been in awe at the generosity of the Panamanian firefighters on this trip. They have been so accommodating and have been serving us daily. They have given us their best sleeping quarters and have taken care of our every need. When we sit down for a meal, there is a server watching from a distance and immediately brings our plate of food and a drink. They are quite giving of themselves. Yesterday, one of the bomberos approached Marcos and gave him his Bible. It was a very special gift from the giver because his wife had woven a very ornate cover for it. Marcos was humbled because he didn't have anything of comparable value to give in exchange. Then he remembered that he had 'accidentally' brought an FFC New Testament that had special meaning to him. Although he meant to bring some New Testaments to give away, this particular one had special meaning to him because it had a hand-written message from John White on the inside cover. So Marcos decided to give this in exchange with a few words explaining why it was special to him. Regarding the generosity of the Panamanians, he commented that often those who have the least, give the most. Isn't that true.
With training now complete, we began the day in the classroom with the entire group. Lizard put together a slide show with plenty of great pictures capturing this past week. There were plenty of cheers and comments. A chant seemed to develop every time a picture of Russ appeared...."Russo! Russo! Russo! Russo!" Russ has been non-stop in attempting to learn Spanish and communicate with the entire class. During any free time and at every meal, we see him with a new acquaintance pulling out his map of Panama to find out where they live, and using his English/Spanish dictionary to communicate to the best of his ability. He has created quite the fan club by doing this and the slide show this morning was just the beginning...this chant was heard throughout the day at any mention of his name. Impressive!
After the slide show, Greg began by mapping out the day, hosting a time of questions and answers, and then the Gospel was presented. John has always been "the closer" on any trip I have been on, as this is truly his spiritual gift, and his absence certainly left a huge hole to fill, but I filled in as best I could. I was able to relate the religious atmosphere I've observed here to a similar atmosphere I had experienced in the Philippines...and a lifestyle I once lived. In the Philippines we met one particular Filipino firefighter, Christina, who spoke freely of her faith in God, prayed with us before meals, went to church, etc., but on our last day there, when asked if she knew her eternal destination, she admitted she didn't know. She "hoped she was good enough to go to heaven." I knew that feeling well. I lived in that mindset for many years, hoping my good out-weighed my bad, and that I wouldn't suffer too much come judgement day. Actually, although I tried to live a moral life, I knew I was a sinner. I knew I wasn't good enough for heaven; but I didn't think I was bad enough for hell. You see, I understood sin, but I didn't understand grace. Back then, I eased my conscience by setting my sights on Purgatory...a sort of in-between place where I would eventually earn my way to heaven. I'm not sure where that concept came from, but it stands in stark contrast to what the Bible says about grace.
Christina was shown simple scriptures contrasting the law verses grace. We read Gal 2:16, "(We) know that man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." We also looked at Eph 2:8,9 which reads, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that on one can boast." When Jesus was asked in John 7:28-29, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" He responded, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." And later in verse 40, Jesus said, "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
Yet saving faith is more than just acknowledging that God exists, for in James 2:19 scripture tells us that even demons believe in God. Faith, like love, requires action. Saving faith is not merely a head knowledge, but a matter of the heart, and putting it into action. Romans 13:14 tells us to "...put on (or clothe yourselves) with The Lord Jesus Christ..." I used the analogy of two police officers who both believed that their body armor would protect them from gunfire, but only one believed it to the point of actually wearing it. The other thought it was too bulky, hot, restrictive, etc. One officer was truly protected, the other not. Active faith, from the heart, is what we read in Romans 10:9, "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." And once saved, you should know it. I John 5:11-13 says, "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life."
Christina prayed to receive Jesus. The class today was also invited to pray. Pastor Bert has clearly presented the Gospel throughout the week and this morning was a 'secondary/final search'. Salvation is entirely of The Lord. Our small part in His plan is to simply go and "...fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel." (Eph 6;19) In that, we are blessed, and are even now seeing fruit of this trip in the lives of our Panamanian brothers/sisters.
Almost immediately after we left the classroom, a strong wind blew in a storm. It poured. This was the first weather we have had on this trip and we thought it might put a damper on our morning scenarios. We prayed and an hour later it was gone, and the whole area was cooled off quite a bit...nice! All the scenarios were held down at the river bottom, and things went very well. Because of the weather, there were downed trees in the area and the bomberos on duty had to respond and weren't able to participate in the morning activities. It was unfortunate for them, but that meant that everyone still here was able to participate. So, the various groups either cut up a car, cut some fire line, or performed a few water rescues...all on their own, with us out of the way. All did well and had a good time in the process.
Following the scenarios, we had a baptism. This was a first for any FFC training trip, but there were students who had asked. Pastor Bert had given some instruction on what it meant, and we had water. So five bomberos made a very public profession of their faith in front of all their peers and were baptized. Lizard and his whole family also came forward to create a special family event. All but their youngest had been baptized prior, but this was something they wanted to do together. It was special for me because I was able to be part of it, and I have seen Lizard grow in his faith from his initial decision for Christ until now. He was so 'concerned' about his first short-term mission trip to Mexico, and has now made several trips to Panama, taking his whole family, venturing into some of the jungles, and even taking public transportation...yikes! He and Jennifer have their eyes set on Jesus and their kids are following in their footsteps.
The afternoon was free to clean-up/pack since the closing ceremony was scheduled for 5:00. The ceremony included a few governmental officials and higher-ranking fire chiefs at the head table, 70 bomberos in the audience, and some of their family sitting at tables off to the side. Speeches were made (in Spanish, but it all sounded extremely complementary). They called us forward individually and presented us with some nicely framed certificates. Greg, sitting at the head table, was asked to say a few words. He thanked them for their extreme hospitality, presented their chief officers with some FFC gifts, and was able to share the most important reason for this trip, the gospel. He stopped short of praying with them, but the message from Romans was clear. Then names were called with each recipient walking forward to receive their certificate and then pass through a gauntlet of handshakes. There were lots of photos taken. It is a big event for them and we are blessed to be part of it. One of the fire chiefs had asked for us to come down again, and again, as often as we can...there's a lot of country to cover.
A big dinner was served afterward and then plenty of handshakes, autographs, exchanging of other personal gifts, and of course...more pictures. It was a busy evening...that’s why this post never got out last night. (I'm finishing it as we fly home)
Bob led devotions at the airport this morning. Primarily he invited everyone to mention some of the highlights of this trip for them. I'll keep this generic and non-personal, but the list goes something like this:
I envisioned that as names of the bomberos were written on the certificates, it was as if they were simultaneously being written in the Book of Life.
Pastor Bert met a bomberos late one evening crying in the hallway because "He couldn’t believe he loved these guys so much."
I really felt like something. Part of a team that I want to continue to be involved with.
This trip will have a lasting effect on me.
Wasn't sure if a particular training was appropriate, but really saw the benefit of ministry and importance of being there.
This trip was a real time of growth for me. Looking forward to the next one and thinking who else he could invite.
Awesome to preach and see a response. Baptism was very special.
Confirmed that a ministry trip is always a real time of growth, quick-charge in his spiritual life. Blessed to see the bomberos pray amongst themselves. Baptism.
This team exceeded my expectations and absolutely eliminated one concern. Lizard’s baptism was very special. Pastor Bert having devotions with the bomberos. Glad to see new people and other chapters getting involved.
Long write-up, but now complete. Thanks again.
FFC's team are doing Auto X, Swift Water, and Wildland training. Already many firefighters have received Jesus as their Savior.
Thanks be to God who always does exceeding abundantly more than all we ask or think, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)
33 - 33