Monday, November 23, 2015

Harvest Season

“Are those masks?” a teammate asked me as we looked down from the dirt road carved into the face of a hill vibrant green with rice plants.  
Sunscreen. Though to be fair, this was more of a physical barrier than one of those nice ones that gets absorbed so no one can tell you smeared white cream all over your nose. This variety is made by mixing some kind of rock powder with water and in appearance is like mineral beauty face masks (minus the cucumber-- you get to eat those). We actually were eating cucumber from the fields, now that I think of it. Giant ones the size of melons, a very welcome treat on our afternoon trek to the next village where these “sun screened” harvesters hailed from. They dotted the slope in a line, collecting the rice one day at a time. Sweaty, back-breaking work that was a requirement for survival in these Karen Hill Tribes.

We were on a week-and-a-half-long trip to visit the churches planted in these villages, to encourage the believers up there, learn from them, and supply some basic medications for the sick. We saw in them the meaning of our trip name: “Phalang Jai” (literally, “Strong Heart”). Harvest season takes it all.

The elderly in these communities bear the marks of the harvest on their bodies: weathered faces, backs frozen in a bent position, hands sporting callouses built from a lifetime of wielding sickles. The young bear the marks of the harvest on their faces, too: the paint of sun ray protection, the eyes that have learned to squint, the tattletale traces of insufficient sleep. Harvest season takes it all.

This trip was many hot hours on the trail, views that captivate your soul and make you want to live in the little field-watching shack you just passed, rivers that needed crossing, rice 3 times a day, and an unfortunate pig that got caught in the hospitality of the head pastor. It was the poised little girl that ate her pet beetles as we all sat around in fascinated horror and intense respect. It was the water bottles precariously balanced on top of headlamps to supply light for the church congregation at our night services. It was hearing the believers worship in their own language, knowing that God was present and pleased with their acts of faith. This trip was learning the humility to eat the rice our brothers and sisters strained their backs over. It was being challenged by their cultural value of letting their guests eat first, knowing that we so often serve our leftovers to God-- not the choice pieces of ourselves and resources. It was feeling conviction over how quick we are as people, as believers, to jump at the fresh fruits of the Harvest yet are often unwilling to participate in the work it takes to produce those fruits when the time comes to leave the houses and live in the fields.

Jesus says that now is the time of the Harvest (Jn. 4:35) but that the workers are few (Mtt. 9:37-38). The Harvest season takes it all. Lord give me courage to put on that sunblock!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Three Fingered Jack Kinda Faith

"Huh," I thought to myself as I looked just below my heels to the several thousand foot drop off and noticed the free-falling rock that had just been dislodged from its position on the cliff face my two friends and I were crossing. "Imagine falling down that!" My verbalization of thought was not welcomed in that moment, leaving me to imagine it for myself.

Despite the spectacular and slightly stomach-churning views, the need for walkie-talkies at certain sections, and the constant watch on the clouds soaring up the rock face and over our heads, the trip was rather uneventful apart from a successful summit of the mountain I had dreamed of for a couple years: Three Fingered Jack. I suppose this is a good thing, as an eventful trip could have ended in the ER at best-- and who needs more bills to pay?! I can probably attribute part of this uneventfulness to the host of prayers rising from the direction of my mother. God heard her.

Sometimes life is like walking on a narrow ledge, holding onto rocks that have a tendency to snap off when you need them most. Like trying to set security ropes in place, but finding that the anchors are of an unreliable nature. Like not knowing what is around the next stack of rocks that splits you and the summit. But you have a faithful guide.

Sometimes you have to trust the person who is going before you, the one who knows the route, the rock, and the way to the top. He has been there before. He knows how to keep you safe on the cliff edge, in spite of the shifting loyalties of the ever-so-inviting hand or foot holds as you climb. This is the comfort we have as believers in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds! In honesty, however, very rarely have I found myself in situations that demand a Three Fingered Jack kinda faith; walking on a knife edge, with little but trust that God sees you and is holding your steps in His capable hands. But how alive the prayer life is under the circumstances! One of my climbing companions pointed out how much easier it is to simply hike the daisy trails with God. The groomed paths, low elevation gain, streams checking in with you every few miles to replenish your water supply. You don't have to pray the "God I really need you now" kinda prayers and wait in that moment of distress to see what He works out.

So what does this mean? Are we to seek out Three Fingered Jacks, forsaking the fair weather in favor of a trust-testing tempest? God knows the path, be it through meadows or on the heights. The meadows don't make us any more "safe" and the mountain paths don't make us any more "in danger" as long as we are following the Good Guide, the Overseer of our souls. In the end, He knows the trail for each of us and will guide us along it in His own time and way.  The focus needs to be upon Him, no matter the terrain. Seeking a path other than the one He wants for us is to distrust His perfect plan. 

View from the summit

Father, give me faith to trust You along any portion of the trail, whether looking down over several thousand feet of air or gazing out over a pleasant field. You know the way, and I do not. Make me willing, make me able to follow You anywhere You lead.

Phil. 4:11-13 ; Heb. 12:1-3 ; Is. 42:16-17

Monday, May 18, 2015

The First Love

I'd never seen an Easter sunrise in the mountains before-- beautiful. Village members came in their traditional hand-woven shirts and dresses to celebrate this special occasion, though only about 3 people in the little church building (besides our team) knew what the term “Easter” meant (those who knew being the traveling pastor with his wife and son). The sunrise service was followed not by the breakfast casserole, fruits, and tea that typically piggy-back the sunrise service to which my family is accustomed.  Oh no, we dined on rice and ferns, the typical meal this time of year (as a short hike into the forest can provide your greens) seasoned with the joys of remembering Christ's life. And it was delicious. Thus began a week of Easter services. We spoke in every village along our path, sharing the story, inviting people to draw pictures of what Easter is about--- finding that for many of the older generation, this was the first time they had ever drawn anything on paper. Crosses were a favorite, but really it was the explanations of what they had drawn that were so profound. I am guilty of devaluing this story, having heard it over and over and over again. I forget the worth of the cross—yet how amazing to celebrate the greatest love story ever told with people who had never celebrated Easter!

View from my sleeping mat one morning.
We were there for a week. We rode into the mountains gloriously in the back of a pickup— feeling like real chariot riders as we bounced our way through the mountain road that is only wide enough for one car at a time and only passable by truck and motorcycle (and that only about 6 months out of the year). From our base village, Tiboakee, we went on by foot to visit about 5 additional villages, staying with local believers along the way and eating whatever came out of the forest. The nights were cool in the bamboo huts, though the stars were for the most part tucked away behind a veil of smoke rising from the burned-off hillsides. It was sad to see so much forest be destroyed, but I know that new life in the form of cultivated food is coming from those ash-filled slopes. People must eat.

There is much I could say about this trip. It was refreshing, beautiful, and humbling. It was filled with ferns, rice, dried fish, and chili peppers. It was spilling over with laughter and songs in both known and not yet known languages (to me). It was marked by God’s hand. And Lord willing, I will be back one day for a longer period of time.

I am now in the United States once again, a very different reality from the mountains of northern Thailand. A lot is different, a lot remains the same. I am reminded of when I left. 

The First Love, the perfect love, the love that casts out fear.
God’s love, not ours, can fully redeem our wasted years. 
Our love imperfect, marred, though being sanctified by His grace,
We so often fail to reflect the First Love and seek His face.
The “love” most know is one of power, ambition, and frequently coercion—
Even the sweetest love has its shadow-side, and all too often, perversion.
But the radical good news is that the second love is not the First,
No, not the true love, the grace-filled love, and for this perfect love we thirst.
Our mission: to reflect the First Love to a broken and hurting earth.
Realize our own brokenness, let the Healer recreate us with new birth.
All His work, we know, for this plan we could never design,
Sending us two by two, in faith to walk, calling us from the side lines.
To the world we may look as if we are moving nowhere but down:
Away from wealth, away from fame, away from comforts all around.
Yet in this lies the paradox, for as we seek ourselves less,
We find even deeper mines of blessing, peace and joy in God our rest.

I wrote the above on the eve of my flight to Bangkok, back in September 2014, as a reflection on a book I had recently read about God's call for us to love. I have gained some perspective since then, mostly about the challenges and complexities of seeking social justice in our world. I have also seen the necessity of it. We can love people, one by one by one. And God does the heart-work. The true transformation comes when He starts pulling down the veil in each of our hearts, exposing the need in each of us for a Savior. For true love. I have been challenged there, in Bangkok, to consider how I see the poor. To consider how my decisions impact those who are on the fringes of society. And oh, what a long way I have left to travel on this road of understanding and truly feeling God’s heartbeat in my own chest! I have had my worth challenged, my faith challenged, my relationships challenged.

And little by little, I know God is shaping me—because, well, I am mud. I am clay. Yet a pot formed by the Master Potter can have confidence approaching the kiln. It was formed properly; it was made to endure the heat. It will be refined, yes, the heat may hurt, yes, but it will impart new qualities as well, and what emerges will have a new, beautiful, and more lasting form. I’m praying God continues His work of shaping me this summer and beyond. Perfect love casts out fear, and I would say that the Potter loves us with the perfect kind of love. The First Love. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dehydrated Souls

The contaminated water was gone all too quickly from my water bottle-- worms and all. By this point I had decided that if I was to get deathly ill from drinking that "spring water" emerging from a pipe in the past village (a pipe, I might add, that happened to be broken right underneath a gift from the nearby water buffalo's bowels), I might as well go big and get slightly more hydrated first. I had been gulping it down in the village before we put it in water bottles to take with us! Hydrate or die, right? Except in this case, hydrating might also mean dying. But hey-- I was craving water! We had set out that morning with less than 500 ml each in a 10 person company, no water filter, no convenience stores along the way, and a strong sense of peace that God would provide. Little else to do than thank God for the water and drink up!

Village with one believing family (&source of questionable water)
The village where we had restocked on worm and flotsam water was one we had not been intending to visit until a believer in the village before told us about their need for encouragement. The family we visited had only believed for 4 weeks--- 4 weeks of spiritual oppression and physical illness. They have no church and no fellow believers to encourage them; only a long history of Satan's domain in their mountains. And he doesn't like to let go without a fight. As we sat inside their little stilted bamboo hut, it became clear that they were struggling, not understanding WHY. Why would the spirits still torment them? Why would their house be shaken, a house known by the name of Christ? Why would spirits come to choke them, and whisper in their ears that Jesus wouldn't save them? They were desperate for relief. For peace. After hearing them out, we got to share how we have seen God conquer the power of the evil spirits-- in places like Ethiopia and Nepal. We got to pray over their family and their house, reminding all present that we are more than conquerers through Christ who loves us. That nothing can separate us from His love. That we are promised to have trouble in this world, but we can take heart because Christ has overcome the world and He gives us His all-sufficient peace. The struggle is very real in those mountains up north in Thailand, but God has already won!  

God provides water in His time. We did not fall asleep thirsty. 
After leaving that village we continued on our way to the next village, a several hour hike away. Soon our contaminated water was gone and our flip flops were kicking up dust as we walked through the hot season colored fields. I was just complaining to God about wanting water when one of our Hill Tribe brothers who was serving as an interpreter for our weeklong trip through the mountains began to whistle. The notes came clear and sound: "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee...." I caught myself singing along, "As Jodi panteth for the water, so my--" WAIT A MINUTE. My thoughts took a whole new direction. We were truly panting for need of water, and the villagers we had just left (and more in the villages before and after them) were panting for more of God! Here I am thinking about how nice a cup of water would feel to my mouth, when their spirits are crying out in desperation for the Living Water! As silly as this sounds, the very dry state of my mouth was a reflection of the state of these mountain peoples. And another thought: is my soul craving the constant presence of God like my mouth is craving water? I think we so often forget our NEED for Him. We don't realize we are dehydrating our souls by not seeking Him first. A dehydrated soul is a far more desperate case than a dehydrated body! My thirst for water put in perspective, I knew the true reason we were in those mountains. Though I loved (for real!) the bee larva spicy sauce, the bamboo houses, the ferns and rice for every meal of the day, the amazing stars (when you could see them through the smoke from the burning hillsides), the hikes through Thai mountains, the laughter between new friends and jokes in a language I have only begun to speak--- I knew I loved the heart behind our trek even more. 

I don't have time now to share more adventures from this trip, so I will either post a Part 2 someday or you will have to ask me about it in person :) 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Camping Next to Clubs

There is something about heating up water in a little pot over a campfire to make MaMa (the far superior Thai form of Ramen noodles) with new friends chatting in Thai, warm tea in your hand, a tent at your back, a river and mountains before you, and lit lanterns finding their way up into the sky. Something that beckons you to ignore the club music pounding its way unabashedly through the cool night air, the drunk neighbors tenting two meters from you, and what feels like a floodlight hung on the tree next to your tent. And yet there is something about the noise and artificial light that makes you value the stillness, the glowing globes God placed in the sky, and the warm tea all the more deeply.

My life in Bangkok feels a bit like that moment by the fire sometimes. I am learning that you have to hold the two together prayerfully and in trust. If all you do is focus on the loud music and the city lights, you miss out on the beauties of the campfire and the people around you. If you focus too much on the pursuit of peace in the midst of the noise, seeing only the coziness of your campsite, you lose touch with the reality of those beyond your firelight. We are not called to ignore what is uncomfortable, what is challenging. But neither are we called to live a life void of peace and rest. God promises that in this world we will have trouble-- but He has overcome. He promises that His peace will be with us, even in the chaos. So there is both.

Post-soccer snack? Mystery-meat-green-papaya sandwich! 
Much has happened since my Cambodia trip in December-- too much to write about here. I have gone on a couple camping trips, spent a couple days back in Cambodia with our students and their families (village soccer included flipflops flying, dust blowing, old ladies biking through the "playing field" of a road, and push-ups for the losing team), visited a southern beach with the Thai family that "adopted" me, started learning to read and write Thai, and have begun volunteering with a separate organization that works with women who have come out of sex-trafficking. Life is busy, often offering only a 4 hour window of "time off" on Monday mornings to compensate for working Tuesday-Sunday. I was recently surprised when I biked home at 5:30pm and could still see the sun. What a gorgeous time of day! The sinking light bouncing off of the high rise buildings, the birds starting to nest in the trees (raising internal wishes and prayers that I wouldn't get a milky white shower from them as I biked below). Sidewalks filled with people on a mission to get home and buy their street-food dinner. I usually bike home at night-- near or past midnight at least 4 days a week. Friends and family sometimes seem concerned about me biking home that time of night, however I have found that apart from the risk of drunk drivers and possibly ill-willed individuals, the traffic situation is much more relaxing than the adrenaline-pumped traffic weaving I do when biking the rest of the day. I could write a blog post about that alone: the different maneuvers used on the daily to avoid being Bangkok roadkill. A few of my favorites include the elbow-tuck and shoulder-duck to avoid the car mirrors, along with the median-push (when you have no room stay vertical on your bike because of an uncomfortably close taxi-- you have to master the art of walking/pushing off the median or curb as you lean into it).
Trip south with my Thai family :) 

Regardless of what time of day, there is noise, and in all the noise, God is still my place of rest. Having the Holy Spirit inside of us, our constant companion and true peace, enables us to face any challenge of schedule or situation. So we embrace the club music and loud neighbors, even though we might rather be alone in the mountains with only the starlight and the sound of the river. There is beauty in every place to which God brings us.

My weekend job:  Farmers' Market Vendor.   
My mountain transportation to reach a waterfall hike and hot springs. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Scars He Sees

A couple weeks ago I jumped on that train to Cambodia really needing to see God.  Not because I was going to be on my own for a few days before my friends arrived (I felt confident in His care), but rather because I had been feeling overwhelmed by all the lives around me that seemed to be forgotten by Him. I had so many questions, yet was challenged all the same to keep trusting, continue hoping, expecting God to move. But that is much easier to tell myself than to actually do, especially when I am looking at some really difficult situations, realizing I only see a fraction of the real picture. My time in Cambodia showed me even more need for God's work, but He also affirmed His presence even in the midst of all the darkness and pain. 

It all started off with a day of transit, catching a taxi, a train, my feet, a truck, a stranger’s personal vehicle, and a motorcycle to reach my destination in Siem Reap. And though I got locked out of my hotel room right before I had to race out to pick up my Half Marathon registration packet from some posh hotel across town, EVERYTHING worked out that day. God blessed my interactions with people: 1) from making some friends on the train by telling a joke in Thai (friends who proceeded to share green mango and fried worm/grub? with me), 2) to giving me a new Austrian friend to navigate the border crossing with, 3) to giving me a kind woman in Poipet to end my fruitless wanderings in search of a bus (she had a friend going to Siem Reap that night who was willing to take me along and drop me at my hostel), 4) to making a new friend over street dinner at 9pm who agreed to meet at 4:50am to bring me on his motorcycle to the race the following morning. God told me going into that trip that I wouldn’t be traveling alone, and He made good on His word in ways that I never could have predicted! The following morning He even provided me with a running buddy for about a third of the race, answering my prayers for a running buddy. 

The sunrise over Angkor Wat
 God directed me to the following verse at the start of the trip, reminding me of His presence and love even in the darkest situations:

“On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.”-Is. 25:7-8
Beautiful countryside and MOUNTAINS!

Many blessings came through connections one of my friends has with local believers (my friends joined me the night of race day). I was not expecting to get to attend a Christmas outreach celebration hosted by a church group, teach English at a school they started in a small town (I found out we were teaching literally 1 or 2 minutes before I was standing in front of my new class of students), or get to worship with Cambodian brothers and sisters in their church. Turns out that the group of believing university students that we spent some time with in Phnom Penh loves to play Settlers of Catan, and the pastor we stayed with (from the USA) was willing to bring us with him to a traditional Khmer-Christian fusion wedding and share his 17-years-in-Cambodia-wisdom with us as we went, stopping by the ocean and a few villages along the way. I saw mountains for the first time since coming to Thailand (Bangkok is fresh outta mountains this time of year!), and we enjoyed drinking from a coconut as we walked down the beach. We also saw the village women who prostitute lounging in front of every shop along a specific street along our drive. We were warned against climbing a certain mountain because of dangerous men and probably land mines. We heard of extortion, of racism, of abuse. Of complicated situations in which girls are sold for their virginity, then used to gain benefits for being raped. Of good-willed organizations that perpetuate cycles of child neglect by trying to be the savior. And yet, the whole trip God was reminding me that He is indeed at work. That He does indeed see His creation and He cares deeply for it. He KNOWS where Cambodia's (and Thailand's) scars and present open wounds come from. I am reminded of Habakkuk’s prayer at the end of his book. Though there is no sign of God’s rescue in challenging situations, “YET I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” God is at work, whether we see it or not. Trusting His word, remembering how we ourselves are changed by His grace, and knowing that His ways are not our ways give us the ability to carry on in faith even in situations where He seems distant. 
Mid-ride selfie: biking 30+ kilometers around Angkor Wat

Hitching a ride with Cambodian believers to the Christmas celebration.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Walking Wet

There was no rain that day.  There had been no rain for at least a week. Yet there I walked dignified through the mall, trying to pretend like I wasn’t leaving the unmistakable trail of water behind me.  Trying to pretend like my clothes were supposed to look darker than usual, hang a little funny, and appear wet-- new fashion?  Yes, a glorious moment, made slightly more glorious by the fact that, with witnesses, I had just stepped off of a ledge into a pond next to the mall trying to blaze my own shortcut back to my bike through a way I had never gone before... On a dark night when the wind wasn’t providing the pond with any waves as warning, it looked just like a walkway.  Exiting through a shortcut was necessary because I was running late to a karaoke night (it's true...) held in a ministry-run coffee shop in the red light area I have been frequenting each week to help teach some young friends of ours who sell roses at night. I had only stopped in the building to use the bathroom. Those are my excuses.  My plunge into the knee-deep pond that caught me so off guard and soaked me up to my head had further irony:  the only thing I was carrying were a couple paper towels I had collected on my way out so that if I arrived at the coffee shop sweaty from biking over, I would be able to dry myself off a bit, look more respectable.  They did nothing for me. I'm sure I made several people's days by taking that plunge, and I certainly made mine-- laughing to myself the whole way out of the building afterwards (further reinforcing the crazy foreigner stereotype).

When I met up with my friends after getting back to my bike and heading to the coffee shop, I was still soaked.  I couldn’t wait to tell them why I was so wet—to get to laugh with them at my failed unintentional attempt at walking on water.  I found there is nothing quite like pushing through busy streets, sitting in a coffee shop, and singing karaoke (some good ol' Lion King-- Zazuu sounded especially hornbillish that night) in front of a small crowd when your entire outfit is telling the story of absent weather.

God has been putting rain on my heart lately.  This is tied to expectancy, to faith, to hope.  I recently finished the book “Tread Upon the Lion” by Sophie DeHaye about a pioneering missionary to Nigeria, Tommie Titcombe.  Tommie shares about a time when they had no rain in the land for a long time— food was scarce for everyone.  Finally, each religious sect started performing rituals to bring the rain.  The animists performing ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the spirits, the Muslims calling out to Allah, everyone pouring everything they had into cries that they hoped would reach the ears of a god who cared and could answer.  No rain.  Finally, the believers in the village decided that they should hold a prayer service and make an appeal to God on behalf of their community.  When the appointed time came, amidst the ridicule of their neighbors, the believers all showed up to the service wearing their umbrella hats in expectation of the coming rain! As they started praying, drops from the sky started falling. Louder and louder the noise became, drowning out the voices of the worshipping believers. They had come before God with assurance that He would hear them and answer. What faith! I am very challenged by this story, by their simple trust that God would provide. While His faithfulness is not shackled to answering our prayers the way we expect, He does love us and will not forsake us (2 Timothy 2:13 says though we are faithless, He will remain faithful—it is in His immutable nature). 

Which brings me back to my story of falling into mall ponds.  I’ve been thinking about what it looks like for us to share God’s love with people who have never known how to perceive it for themselves.  People who feel as if they have never been loved, especially by God. Sometimes all we can do is sit with someone and hear them.  Not try to offer answers and solutions, but when they ask, relay the message to those living in drought that rain exists. We can share the account of why we are drenched in dry season. Maybe walking wet through crowds of people isn’t so bad after all (but seriously-- go try it!). Wearing an umbrella hat with no clouds in the sky likewise shares a story, and an expectation of the seemingly impossible. I have been praying that I will wear my umbrella hat each day, going in faith that God hears His people’s cries—no matter how hopeless a situation may appear. Social injustice is overwhelming. And yet, God sees and sends His rain in His own time and way; He has been faithful before and He will be faithful again.