Posted in Learning

Khao Jai

“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Of all of the things I hoped to get out of spending a year in Thailand, I will admit, a little abashedly, that making friends with Thai people wasn’t that high on the list. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, I just assumed that, with the language barrier, and because the interns come and go so often, that the staff would have little interest in really hanging out with us. I knew they had their own lives and families and friends, and just assumed that would be their primary community, and we, as the interns, would be sort of on the fringes, mainly hanging out with each other. I’ll admit, too, that I couldn’t imagine what we would have in common. I expected to get close to the other interns and maybe even other expats in Chiang Mai, but I couldn’t imagine having any more than a surface-level friendliness with the staff.

Within my first few days in Thailand, Elaine was talking about the staff and asked, in her genuine sweetness, “our staff is so passionate and loves Jesus and our clients so much, seriously, are they angels?” Our staff. For Elaine, who had been here the longest, it was plainly obvious that this wasn’t “the Thai staff” or “the national staff” – they were our staff. And they were angels. Working and playing and praying alongside them, I started to see where she was coming from. Many of the staff had families but they were also committed to the family of the office. We all piled in the back of a truck together and picked somewhere to all go to lunch. We went to see Thai rom-coms on Saturday nights. We posted unflattering pictures of each other on facebook and had a group chat. We played (I watched) badminton after work and they (I won’t even pretend I was involved in this one) go on 6am 40 kilometer bike rides every weekend. The staff is committed to each other and to us. Not only as co-workers, but as friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.

I think I expected to be invited and included in things in the very beginning – I was new and wanted to try new types of food and see places, and that was fun. If you’ve ever made a vacation or camp friend, you know how easy it can be to feel affectionate towards people that you meet in unique moments of your life – there’s a novelty to all of it! But most of those friendships have pretty short expiration dates, and you wind up leaving with a good taste in your mouth about those people even though you may have not had much in common at all and you stay facebook friends for a while and maybe even shoot them a message every once in a while. So of course the staff were friendly when I arrived in Thailand, and the CSA team took me out into the field with them even though I had no idea what was going on and people included me in everything, but I honestly expected it to be temporary.

Because after a few weeks, a few months, the novelty is going to wear off, and what are we then? People with nothing in common who don’t speak the same language.

But as I hung out on the sidelines of the badminton court last Friday after work, sharing a bag of chocolate wafers with P’Kay and watching everyone play, I realized – these people were my friends. However unlikely it was, I considered these people my friends. Not in a novelty, “Thai friends” kind of way, but in a way that was real, and cemented by hours of shared experiences, some of them pretty remarkable. Sing karaoke in a bar with someone until one in the morning and tell me you don’t like them.  Make lunch with someone on a 4ft wok and tell me they aren’t your friend. Watch someone speak truth and love to an abused little girl in a counseling session and tell me you don’t care about them. These are the people I prayed with and worshipped with and read scripture with every day. No, I can’t understand them, but do we think so little of God that He couldn’t build community because of language?

Turns out, relationship is about a lot more than conversation. That if you spend enough time around people, see them in certain situations, you begin to know them almost by accident. Some things are external and easily explained – P’Kay loves American pop music, and P’Mouy has a mild Candy Crush addiction. Some are less so – the way P’Nui transforms from authoritative leader to warm and gentle mother as soon as she is around her family, P’Nueng’s silent and striking gift for hospitality and small acts of service. I thought I would have to work to know the names of all the staff, and within only 2 months, I’ve begun to know their families, their favorite foods, their quirks, their insecurities, and their faiths.

I know I talk about the CSA team too much, but we spend a lot of hours in the same room, or all piled in a car, together.  I was sitting at my desk and a member of our team leaned against my little divider to talk about a case. It was a hard one. She rubbed her face, her fingers running up her forehead and her bangs falling in front of her hands. It was another one of those things I had noticed. I had seen her doing it at her desk a few times. I won’t pretend to be an expert on someone else’s feelings, but that one is somewhat universal –exhaustion, disappointment, stress. She struggled to explain the developments in the case (her English was really good when she could focus) and somehow, through our broken Thanglish conversation, we wound up talking about more than just that case. She rubbed her face again, her eyes red, and tripped over her words, saying we could help these kids but “we can’t… I can’t…” she gave me a pleading look, and even if she didn’t know how to finish the sentence, I thought I might. But I didn’t say anything. One of the things God has taught me here is that I don’t know as much as I think I do, and that I should probably just keep my mouth shut. So I just, slightly awkwardly, reached out and touched her arm and agreed with her. She laughed under her breath and said. “I don’t know how to explain, but you understand.” She smiled at me, the same shy one I had seen at that conviction my first week, and went back to her desk.

The Thai phrase for “do you understand?” is “khao jai mai?” Which you can respond to with “mai khao jai” (I don’t understand) or “khao jai” (I understand).  I speak very little Thai – but this one I do know. I can’t always explain how I feel or what I’m thinking to the staff, or to my friends, or even on this blog, but I take comfort in the fact that understanding runs a lot deeper than comprehension, and that as I start to understand the people, even if I can’t understand the words, that they will understand me as well.

Harry, Ron and Hermione weren’t friends from the very beginning of the Harry Potter series. Harry and Ron only accepted her when they, in a strange turn of events, wound up taking up a mountain troll together. J.K. Rowling then tells the reader that the three were unquestionable best friends after that, because “there are certain things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.”

Besides being a good way to show off my thorough knowledge of Harry Potter, this is all to say this work is our mountain troll. Moving to a new country and starting a new internship with new people, working with children, and pushing cases through, this is our mountain troll. And I’ve learned to understand these people more than I ever thought I would, and I know this is only the beginning.

Posted in Learning

A New Year – And The Virtue We’ve Forgotten

“The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” -G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

“Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” -Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)

There’s a theme that has run through all that I’ve been learning and writing since I arrived in Chaing Mai, and I have to admit that it took me looking back through all of the pages of prayers to finally begin to understand it.

I’ve spent the last week hanging out at coffee shops, sleeping in, watching some netflix, having long lunch dates, and exploring the city – and have felt terribly guilty about all of it. I feel like I’m wasting time when I stay at home and that I’m wasting supporter’s money when I go out and do anything. You see the dilemma. Worst of all, there is nothing I’m procrastinating about, nothing I should be doing instead. So there’s nothing I can accomplish to satiate the feeling. Talking to a few friends in Chaing Mai, I began to realize this is a pretty common feeling, a sort of missionaries’ curse. If you profess you are serving the Lord, you shouldn’t dare post anything on social media or otherwise display publicly that you are having too much fun. If you enjoy anything, it must only be the righteous joy of serving, and while we tell all Christians that we need to take our Sabbaths and that God doesn’t want us to burn ourselves out, we still would rather hear about the sacrifices you’ve made than how great your day off was.

This first quotation I freely admit I ripped straight out of a Christmas email we received from the VP of Regional Operations for Southeast Asia, Blair. But it has been ringing with me ever since I first read it – His mirth. What a thought right? That Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him.”

There is no vanity more tempting to me than a martyr complex, and its such an easy one to fall into, so easy to dress up like virtue, the desire to give everything, even to suffer, for the Gospel. But when we really look at what scripture says – that strange theme emerges, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Corinthians 12:10). I could do this all day – its everywhere in the New Testament, this unexpected by-product of even the darkest days of discipleship – joy. 

And vanity strikes back in my heart, “Aren’t I supposed to suffer for the Gospel?” Yes, but even that is to be to your great joy. What greater joy could the soul be capable of then what naturally comes out of being exactly what and where you were designed to be? Like the way vegetables are more delicious when grown in dirt instead of greenhouses and the way dogs run through open fields, there’s something in creation that just glows when it is allowed to be nothing more or less than exactly what it was intended to be. So sacrifice, deny yourself, give, love, but do it for the joy set before you. Or do we think ourselves nobler, holier than the Jesus we follow?

Joylessness is as much an affront to God’s nature as any of our other sins. I mean look at the world He created. We hiked up a set of 10 connected waterfalls outside of Chiang Mai, and at the very top, saw children playing in them, jumping off, running under the crashing water, sliding down the slippery rocks, and I couldn’t help thinking that God took great joy in their wholehearted playfulness – the same way any father would delight in seeing his child enjoy a toy he had given them. I look at elephants and smell flowers and taste spices and I can’t help thinking that God intended someone to delight in them, and if not us humans, then who else?

Jesus told us to be like children, who can run through the world around them, simply for the joy set before them, and I’m drawn to another G.K. Chesterton quote from the same book,

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we”

Gradually all of our “holy” excuses for our long faces are starting to crumble. I’m an avid reader of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I will confess that I have, at times, used the words of the often sober and solemn pastor and martyr to justify my own seriousness. He addressed this issue of the human resistance to joy in a series of devotionals he wrote for his seminary students I was reading the other day, saying “that is the human heart, which won’t let itself be comforted, which tumbles from one depression to another” but that “sorrow and unrest last only a short time. They should not imprison my soul. Speak to your soul too, don’t let it torment itself or be anxious. Say to it: Hope in God!” (“Longing for the Living God,” exaudi sermon on Psalm 42 presented as meditational aid)  Probably more powerful yet, this great pastor and writer of essays on things like human suffering and who would eventually be executed, was described by his fellow prisoners, in the days leading up to his death, as a man that “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every small event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive” and ones who’s “soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison” (quotations from the editor’s introduction of “Testament to Freedom”).

I find myself also thinking of the last recorded minute and seventeen seconds we have of Martin Luther King Jr., words won’t due them justice, so here’s the clip, its worth your time.This was the night before he was assassinated, and while there is undeniable bravery and wisdom and even prophecy in his words, there’s something else sparkling in his eyes too. Maybe I would like to fancy that it is joy.

Perhaps this is the great secret, of our modern martyrs and of the disciples and the prophets and Jesus himself. Which none of them seemed to be able to find the words for, what we would have to discover on our own. That when we encounter the Creator, when we discover love and grace and forgiveness and mercy, we inevitably find joy along the way. Like all great gifts, if you seek it, you won’t find it, but if you seek what is above and behind it, if you seek God, you will receive it as well.

C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity that it is only when we have tried very hard to be good that we realize how bad we are, and that it is only when we realize how bad we are that we realize how good God is. That our real journey of following Jesus only begins then. That place of realizing how hopeless we are on our own, unexpectedly enough, is where real joy begins.

So as we head into 2015, with resolutions that usually include us somehow bullying ourselves to be better, kinder, fitter, smarter, whatever, may we find solace in the one great virtue that we can’t pretend to have more of by sheer effort: Joy. It can be found only by setting our eyes on Jesus, and when we feel it, may we not be ashamed of it, and may we recognize its source.

In this world we will have trouble, and our minds will refuse to be comforted, but take heart because He has overcome the world. He endured the very worst it had to offer; torture, abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, and even death, all for the joy set before Him. For the Joy.

So may we do the same, for the joy set before us as well.