Posted in Learning

“A Softer Word for Grizzled”

I was out at lunch with my husband after church last weekend, and I noticed that he was wearing the same outfit he had worn on our first date. The oxford shirts and j.crew chinos he lived in while we were in college, had be gradually swapped out for the graphic tees, flannels, and jeans that fit in better at the video game studio he worked at now. I noticed, with him back in those clothes, that he looked exactly the same as he did more than 4 years ago when we got together.

“You know, today you look just like you did on our first date.”

He paused, looking at me. “You look… not older, but more mature? … no… more…. What’s a softer word for ‘grizzled’?”

We laughed. I wasn’t offended, just left wondering – was it the scar I got on my face last year from a nasty spider bite? Was it the weight I lost, that made my cheek and jaw bones harsher? My short hair? My tragus piercing? I knew it probably wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t push him about it, but I can guess that, if I had, he would have probably said it was something behind my eyes. Something in the way I snapped my fingers compulsively when I was nervous. I didn’t do that when when I was 20 and falling in love with him.

When I started my job about 6 weeks ago, my boss asked for a photo he could put on the Instagram to introduce me. I picked one of me at a coffee shop, taken by a good friend of mine, right before I left for Thailand. I had used the same one for my CYMT (center for youth ministry training) bio. At least five people told me I didn’t look anything like my picture. I don’t know what to tell you, people, its a picture of me.

But this post isn’t really about me reconciling looking vaguely different. Its about reconciling feeling vaguely different. On a meta level, looking back through the past two years of this blog is a case study in the transition through post-adolescent idealism, culture shock, disillusionment, adjustment, re-entry trauma, and into a new version of normal.

Some months to process (probably not enough) and re-entry counseling (definitely not enough) have been the keys to letting me begin to see how to really live in the reality I’m in now, as a youth worker, seminarian, and wife, without trying to smother the truth that I have also lived in a completely different reality.

I had lunch with a friend last week who was working at the IJM office in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, while I was in Chiang Mai. She had come to visit Thailand as a visa run while I was working there, and we had reconnected at the re-entry retreat in Washington this past winter. She just moved to Fort Worth, and we met at a Thai restaurant to catch up. She said something that has stuck with me.

She said, “You know, everyone wants the year with IJM to be black-and-white, like it was this amazing vacation where I met these great people and got to do really cool stuff, or it was horrible and dangerous and traumatic. But, like.. it was both, you know? Its a gray year, you can’t have one without the other. Its just more complicated than people get.”

She is so right. I loved my year in Thailand, I am so grateful, it taught me measures of mercy, grace, joy that I could have never learned another way – I saw some of the most beautiful places on earth, and probably of the 10 most exciting days of my life, Thailand is responsible for 8 of them. But I also saw and experienced things I will never be able to fully process or understand. I walked hand in hand with trauma and violence and death day after day after day. I will never have as much faith in my emotional resilience, mental health, or my own sense of justice as I did once.

As a small example: at some point fairly early on while I was in Thailand, I started to become very uncomfortable around children. All the children I worked with, and talked to and about, were victims of sexual violence and exploitation, and my healthy boundaries mutated into an deep-seated aversion. I intentionally maximized the amount of physical space between me and children I interacted with, I avoided eye contact. I’m sure it was some coping mechanism to make being constantly surrounded by horrible abuse more tolerable. But when I came home, I couldn’t turn it off. A friend of mine had a baby and people were passing the baby around to be coo-ed over. I felt my hands sweat and my feet shift, I intentionally stepped out of the group before the baby was passed to me so I didn’t have to make up a reason why I wasn’t going to hold her. The truth, that every time I was around children, my brain filled with all of the child abuse images I had seen, and testimonies of assault I had transcribed, seemed like it would hurt the joyful mood.

A couple weeks ago, a woman I work with’s 3-year-old grandson came into the office. I stood in the door of my office, trying to create a little space between us without being weird. The little boy looked up at me and smiled and waved. And the knot in my chest loosened. He was ok. He was just a happy little kid. I sat back at my desk. He came in and stood in my office and talked about spaceships and star wars and who knows and I talked to him. I listened. And my palms weren’t sweating, my mind was clear. He was ok. And so was I. He grabbed my hand to show me something and I realized it was the first time I had been able to as much as hold hands with a child in over a year. Earlier this week, our neighbors came over for dinner. They have a 3 and 6 year old who are so sweet. The 3 year old girl climbed in my lap. And it was ok, good even. I had volunteered at a nursery in high school, I had always loved being around little kids. I had kind of assumed that I would never be able to enjoy being around them again. But I was wrong. It just took time.

So what’s a softer word for grizzled? I am more than I was before I left, but I am also, in some way, less. I am now a couple months into what is truly the next phase of my life, and this phase will probably shape me in just as powerful ways as Thailand did if I’m willing to move on and really step into it. And I finally feel like I am. I will tell the teenagers I work with tales of Chiang Mai, of operations and of elephants, but I will also tell them about growing up in Tennessee, about college in Ohio, about my lovely and quirky husband. I will never really have as “normal” a story as some of the people around me, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still my community, it doesn’t mean I don’t belong here.

God didn’t give me these experiences that I might be tormented by them, that I might carry them around like an unspeakable secret, but that I might use them to help others to understand Him in a new way, that the hallelujahs might be multiplied by others who hear and recognize His hand in the story. And, maybe more importantly, He will give me other stories too. Ones even more amazing than the ones already written.

So, this is probably the last post about Thailand. It will come up again, I’m sure, but its time to set my eyes forward instead of back. The season for processing, grieving, and remembering is ending, and the next season is truly beginning. I will not miss the new song being sung because an older one is still stuck in my head.

Thank you again to everyone who’s come with me this far. As they would say in my all time favorite show (The West Wing) — What’s Next?


Posted in Learning

Making Sense

“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Over the past few weeks, I have lost 2 things: my engagement ring and my grandfather.

With the help of some frustrating conversations with the Royal Thai Police and a very nice insurance agent back in the states, my engagement ring will be replaced, and when I called my fiance freaking out and crying a couple weeks ago, he was amazing and comforting and reassured me that a thing is just a thing and proved himself (once again) to be serious husband material.

My grandfather passed away on May 11th, he was 90 years old.

When I first lost the ring, I thought God was reminding me not to hold on to things too tightly, giving me a chance to demonstrate that even my most treasured thing is only a thing and I cannot put stock in it, I can let it have a piece of my heart, because it could be taken

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20) 

I felt like God was reminding me to hold on loosely to things of this earth.

And then I got a message from my mom. It was late at night, I had just come back from a long haul out to a co-workers village for his wedding. I was distracted, exhausted, and glanced at my phone, half-asleep, and saw her message, that he was dying. And my thoughts did not spin. I wasn’t overwhelmed with memories of him. My brain was still. Not frozen in shock, just still. Overburdened and full and without any space and emotional energy left for that day. So I clicked my phone locked, plugged it into its charger and went to bed. I’ll confess I can have a Scarlett O’Hara approach to intractable problems, i.e. “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

I called my parents the next day, and we decided I wouldn’t be coming home for the funeral. The day after that, I took a bus to the Burmese border and back to get my visa re-stamped. It was 4.5 hours each way, giving me an unusual amount of one-on-one time with God. I thought of the good memories of my grandfather, I thought of the awkward and strained ones. I wrote a short good-bye. I sent it to my mother, and he passed away that night.

I looked up at the sky and wondered. Still trying to teach me to not hold on too tightly, Big Man? And the sky did not answer. And I thought of Dr. Tyson – “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

God is under no obligation to make sense to you.

I realized I had been looking at everything that had happened and trying to draw lines and connections and figure out God’s grand plan for me at every step. As though the universe revolved around my personal spiritual development. It doesn’t. It revolves around God. And while He is great, and will work for the good of those who love Him, and will arrange the stars for the salvation of each of us who He loves so deeply, He is under no obligation to.

We should reflect and evaluate our lives and see the way God has worked in us and further glorify Him because of it. But maybe I have been trying too hard to force meaning and pithy lessons when all God calls us to is to glorify Him, even when He doesn’t make sense to us. Just because the universe doesn’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. 

I found myself re-learning the very first lesson I wrote about learning in this blog – that its not about you. God is good. And He is faithful. And He is great. And like Bonhoeffer wrote in his Christmas letter to his seminarians in 1939,

What a mistake to think that it is the task of theology to unravel God’s mystery, to bring it down to the flat, ordinary human wisdom of experience and reason! It is the task of theology solely to preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to defend, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery.

It is not up to us to piece together the meaning and value in our lives. Our lives have meaning and value because we are beloved children of God, we don’t have to prove that we were worth His sacrifice by (in my case) demonstrating the new lessons we’ve learned every couple weeks in a blog post.

God is good, and He asks us to have faith, to remain in Him, even when we cannot always understand.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Thank you for your continued prayers and support, I am lucky to walk alongside all of you.

Posted in Learning

Long-term Thinking

Alice: “How long is forever?”

White Rabbit: “Sometimes, just one second.”

-Lewis Carroll

Welcome to the halfway mark.

I have been in Thailand for 6 months, and its a weird transition between having moments where I miss home like a punch in the gut, and forgetting that I have ever lived anywhere else. I have gone from learning things about Thailand and from the people here, to it becoming a intractable part of who I am. This will always not only be the year that I lived abroad, but this is where I got my first apartment, my first job, my first, well not car, but vehicle that was truly mine. It is true that, in 6 months, I will move back to the states, and say goodbye to my temporary home here, but I’ve realized that what I have here, what its helped me become, that is not temporary. And I won’t leave it here.

Just because something ends doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be permanent to count. After all, all things in life, even life itself, is temporary in the end. Of all the things that runs through my head right now, its the series finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. (Spoiler alert, but the series ended a over a year ago, so you should keep up.) After 10 seasons of searching for the love of his life, the protagonist, Ted Mosby, finds her, and the series finale goes through their life together, and even, her early death. I was talking to a friend about it, and he expressed frustration that, after all those years of searching, it doesn’t even matter, because she dies after they only have a few years together.

I fundamentally disagree. There are moments in my life that mean more to me than the years of preparation that led up to them. There are people that I knew for a summer, an afternoon, that fundamentally changed the make-up of who I am in a way that people I’ve known my whole never have. And never could have.

Because when faced with a person, or a place, or a situation, or an opportunity that you know you only have a short time with, there are two options for how to react: to decide that its not worth the investment and invest in what seems more permanent, or to pour yourself that much more urgently into it, because you know you might not get another chance, and you don’t want it to slip away.

I can tell you now that who I am to my very core was influenced in a substantial way by a 10-minute conversation I had with a dying Jamaican man 3 years ago. And that it was not by the kids that sat in the same classrooms as me my whole childhood. I can’t even remember their names. That Jamaican man’s was Henry.

And when we think, really think, about our fate as God’s creation, that makes sense, doesn’t it? If we believe in the Gospel, we believe that we will spend eternity in the presence of God, worshiping Him. Eternity. Do we realize that in the view of eternity, 10 minutes and 50 years are the same? That their difference is infinitesimally small when we consider the eternal lives ahead of us? And, more fundamentally, that a moment when we are in the presence of God is more important than a thousand without Him? Better is one day in Your courts than thousands elsewhere, right?

So don’t give me that “long-term thinking” wisdom. If you really think long-term, and I mean long-term, like eternity-long, you realize that missing a networking event to comfort a friend, or giving a little more generously than is financially sound, might make a lot of sense after all.

So living in Thailand is temporary, but so will be my marriage, my career, and the sum of my whole life on this earth. But in the same moment that we realize that, we realize that this world will pass away, and that to dust we shall return, we must also remember that we are immortal. And the soul these places and relationships and events has created in me will live forever, so in some way, so will they.

The morning of the day I met Henry, I was having a conversation with a youth pastor, and he said something to me I will never forget. We were standing outside “The Infirmary,” a hospice for the destitute in Manchester, Jamaica. He gestured to the foul-smelling and make-shift building, with beds crammed together, inches apart, and to the people that lay in them, many both mentally and physically ill, made worse by the conditions of the place, and said, “this isn’t something the kids have to ‘get through,’ this is life, just as worthy as theirs, and they may only spend an afternoon here, but we will spend eternity with these people, might as well get to know them.”

When I fight through broken conversation with staff, or exchange nervous glances with the children I work with, I hear that truth in my head. Hopefully, I will get to spend eternity with these people, and when I do, we won’t have language and hurt and sin separating us, we will be in perfect communion. But maybe we will remember the small, broken of acts of love we showed each other, and it will lead us to glorify God that much more, for making us able to connect to each other, even if a bit awkwardly.

All things in this world are temporary, but the love we show and feel for each other, that comes from the part of us that truly is eternal, making it about the wisest investment we can make.

Weirdly enough, when we think in the longest of terms, I think we’re drawn back into being present in moment we’re in right now. I think, here in Thailand especially, where I am so often out of my element, lost, uncomfortable, the freedom to truly enjoy this time, in all its profound and wonderful strangeness, is an unbelievable blessing. So I don’t know what I will do with my life, or how this fits into the big picture, I hardly even understand how the work I am doing here fits into the big picture, but I have faith that God does get it, and the best way to steward the gift of being here is not to imagine what I will do with the experience, but just to have the the experience.

So make wise long-term investments of your time and resources, friends, and thank you for all of your prayers and support these last 6 months, and I hope for them the next 6 as well!

Posted in Learning

Faithfulness and Foolishness

I recently started reading Good News about Injustice. It was the founder and president of IJM, Gary Haugen’s first book. Written in 1999, when IJM was just a infant organization which had barely opened its first field office. What has stuck with me most about it is not the stories of grave abuse of power and injustice against the poor, or even the powerful scriptures Gary invokes to describe the way God acts on behalf of the oppressed (between 2 internships, reading 3 books, attending a conference, and months of support-raising, I’m pretty comfortable in my knowledge of IJM’s work and spiritual foundations). What strikes me is God faithfulness.

The book makes a lot of pretty big claims about how God will intervene on behalf of the poor, and that God has “miracles saved up for those who seek justice in His name.” With the perspective of just 15 years, I can hear the prophecy in those words. Because we have seen miracles. I, the intern of a combined time with IJM of less than 6 months, have seen miracles, and those that have been in it from the beginning have seen much greater ones. To paraphrase this book: I thought “miracles” sounded over-dramatic, then I got out more.

Last week, I was jotting down praises and prayer requests in the office, and asked one of our CSA staff if she had heard anything from the judgment of a perpetrator that was that morning. When she answered “20 years, 6 months” – I literally asked her to repeat it at least 2 or 3 times, we’re normally thankful to get a sentence of 3 years. As I scribbled it down, I found it hard to think of it as anything less than a miracle.

We have seen miracles of rescue, with over 300 slaves being freed at once a couple weeks ago. Miracles of justice, precedent-setting convictions all over the world. Miracles of restoration and bravery, with former sex trafficking victims busting back into the brothels that once held them with our teams to show the police where the other girls were being hidden. Miracles of awakening, what was once an unknown issue, be declared by the President of the United States as “the great human rights fight of our generation.” I volunteered at a student conference hosted by IJM last fall, and met hundreds of leaders, representing thousands of students, who were committing their time, and some of them, their entire college careers (and possibly after) to the fight for justice for the poor. We have seen miracles of transformation not just of lives, but of whole societies, IJM and partners have freed thousands of slaves in South Asia, but we have also have heard reports of hundreds more being released by their captors of their own accord because all the arrests have led them to conclude them that it is no longer worth the risk to keep slaves because they really could get caught. Now that is “light breaking forth like the dawn.” (Isaiah 58:8) 

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression – the fight against injustice is in fact a fight. And I’m an intern in a small field office and probably know far less about that fight than any of the staff that have been in this work since I was in grade school. More than there are exciting rescues and tear-jerking stories of restoration, there are court delays and tip-offs, and months of work for incremental beauracratic victories towards citizenship, and overturned judgements, and and the monotonous banality of the evil of apathy in those around us, and in ourselves. Which is what makes it all the more striking when, after months of years of working on a case, there is suddenly a conviction, or an official changes his mind and grants citizenship to 500 people all at once.

God promises in scriptures that He will take up the case of the poor, and that if we follow his call to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow” that our “light will break forth like the dawn” and that we will be called “Repairer of Broken Walls, and Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:6,8,12). And He has followed through on that promise. He is faithful. Through our longest nights, and in the darkest places on earth, He is faithful. In those places and fights that are the most hopeless, He is the closest.

I have had a taste of this faithfulness. I was originally assigned to be a Communications Intern in South Asia, in one of IJM’s largest offices, telling the stories of those once held in forced labor slavery. Instead, I am the Aftercare Intern for one of IJM’s newest projects in a small office in Northern Thailand. After months of prayer, confusion, joy, brokenness, victory and loss, I have no pithy explanation for what God intended me to learn from this. It is not super clear or obvious to me why this had to happen the way it did – why I had to spend months prepping for a place I would never go, and then sit anxiously for another two, and then all of a sudden be sent somewhere completely different to do something I knew nothing about, at no small inconvenience to the office I arrived in.

God is not so simple to reveal it all to me. And although I do not know what I am doing, I do know that He is good. I know I have learned much and found a deep joy and hope, and my heart of stone has been broken and rewoven into something better, and that I am more deeply God’s than I ever been. Even if I do not always feel His presence, or understand His work, or have mountaintop highs, I know Him more. I have found a firm belief that God is at work and that He will answer prayers. Things are not all roses – I have fought loneliness, anxiousness, anger, and a subtle, deep sense of discomfort that being outside of your own culture can give you. I have cried and stared at my ceiling and my Bible has sounded empty and hollow. I have felt the slow cheesegrater-to-the-soul effect that this job can have if you let it. But I have believed, and I have fought the good fight, badly, but I have tried the very best I can. And I will keep trying. God has proven Himself to be faithful throughout the whole history of mankind and I am not vain enough to think myself the exception.

It’s in the knowledge of all this, in the serious business of God’s faithfulness, that I am drawn into an interesting, and perfectly unexpected conclusion. In the face of God’s perfect faithfulness, we must have the faith and the courage to be kind of foolish. To believe in things that don’t seem like they could be true and dive wholeheartedly into things that don’t seem like they will work. I think of Joshua telling his troops as they head towards the city of Jericho that they aren’t actually going to be using weapons, they’re just going to walk around the city playing trumpets and breaking jars and hope it works out. They must have looked RIDICULOUS.

In the view of God’s faithfulness, where really is the room for human wisdom? A glance back at the scriptures and at God’s faithfulness in my own life and all the perfectly reasonable arguements that say things like “be realistic” seem rather, well, unrealistic. Because reality is, we have a God who if He is with us “nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” That is either true or it is not, and there’s not really a whole lot of room for “wise” things like hedging your bets, or keeping a plan B. If it is true, we should have the courage to live in a way that reflects that, and if it is not then this is all a waste of our time. For when we meet God, and he asks us why we kept Him so confined, and lived such conservative, comfortable lives, and we answer “well God, I believed in You but I just didn’t want to risk too much, in case you let me down or didn’t turn out to be real” I doubt He will respond by praising us for being so wise.

So, in the great knowledge that God is faithful, may we have the courage to be foolish for the sake of the Gospel. I, in what has been undoubtedly one of the hardest things I have ever done, have found myself increasingly stuck on the GOODNESS of God. On the JOY He has in us, on the HOPE we have in Him, on His FAITHFULNESS, and now, on how FOOLISH all of that empowers us to be. Check out this video by one of my favorite bands, an Irish worship band called Rend Collective Experiment, which sums up this great truth. May you be encouraged, brothers and sisters! And in view of God’s greatness, may you find a joy and a hope and a foolishness and a life you could never have imagined.

Posted in Learning

Hope when you have no Stomach for it.

The Thing Is
Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Don’t be overly alarmed by the heaviness of the poem – this post is actually about babies. Yes, babies. A few friends back home and a co-worker here have just had babies, and I’m wondering how they must feel. Even people who are considerably older than me, and who I think of as real, mature adults, when I see pictures of them holding their newborn kids I can’t help noticing that they just look so vulnerable. We think of babies as fragile, but it also seems like babies make us fragile. One day you’re just an adult with your life generally in order and dealing with the same daily neuroses and failings you’ve been dealing with your whole life and then all of a sudden, your entire life is devoted to the care of another human being who is completely dependent on you. Oh and if you let its head drop, or set it down the wrong way, or wrap it up too tightly, or let it get too cold, or too hot, or anything, it might die. Why is it that the day your child is the absolutely most vulnerable is the day that you have the least amount of parenting experience? How has the human race survived at all?

And this was all God’s design. He was the one that gave us only a vague instinctual understanding of how to care for children. It was within His power to make humans naturally better at parenting, or to have human babies walk around on their own fifteen minutes after they’re born like giraffes, but no. They have to be taught, coddled, carried, soothed, essentially, at least one, if not two adult humans have to bring their lives to a screeching halt to make sure one child even makes it to age five. How evolutionarily inefficient.

So it must have been designed this way on purpose. What else could teach us even a shadow of what God’s unconditional love looks like than being willingly vomited on, screamed at, and even resented for eighteen years by someone you gave life to? Children seem to teach us the unglamorous, unreturned, ugly side of love.

But they also represent something else: hope. Children, babies, are an undeniable symbol of hope. A baby, as much as it is messy, is also the happy ending, the reason it was all worth it, the redemption in the darkest of situations. Babies represent new life, second chances, starting over; when we accept Christ we are “re-born,”  Jesus told Nicodemus that there needed to be a “second birth.” Babies represent something so holy to us and close to the heart of God – redemption. And this is the gloriously optimistic, singing in worship, side of love and faith, isn’t it? The part of faith that tells us that you don’t have to be all the bad you have been, that you can leave that all behind, that from now on, you are a son or daughter of The King, and that your heart is transformed and that you will spend eternity in peace and joy worshiping your Creator. And so we cling to that hope, that blinding white light of it, and so we should, great things await us on our path home.

But then we look at our life, and we don’t feel all that sanctified, and we keep making the same mistakes, and we aren’t always filled with a peace that passes all understanding or life abundant or a complete joy. Days blur together and we snap at our loved ones, and we keep turning back to God thinking this time, this time, it will be different, this time my life won’t be so ugly. We see how God has worked in us slowly in the past, how he has sanctified us one little piece at a time, but the more we learn, the more we realize our own brokenness, and we are frustrated by how much farther we have to go. Won’t one day we wake up and just be good? Why do we have to continue to fail? We are frustrated and exhausted by our own humanness, and yet we continue to pour our hearts into the belief that, even if its inch by inch, we will be better, God will work in us. What would you call that other than hope?

Hope, aware of all that is working against you, and of all the times you’ve failed and hope in the future of a child that is screaming and rubbing food on the walls, is a lot more poignant than a hope that doesn’t yet know how hard its going to be yet. Hope is one of the theological virtues, right in between faith and love in 1 Corinthians 13. Hope when everything is going well is no virtue, hope “when you have no stomach for it,”  has an incredible power.

I know a very young expectant mother here, who’s very pregnancy is evidence of just how dark this world can be. She’ll have the baby any day now. All of the new children of my friends and family members bring hope – but this baby will bring hope of completely different kind, a hope that is a virtue, that is exhausted and battle-worn, and which looks at life and says “yes, I will take you, and I will love you, again.”

I searched through some scriptures on home to find something quotable, and I stumbled across a truth with just as much power as any tattoo-worthy verse. With the exception of Psalms, the book in the Bible that mentions hope the most is Job. The prophet who lost his family, his living, everything, is the prophet who has the most to say about hope. I think that’s scriptural validation enough.

Thank you for your continued support and prayers, always feel free to share my blog or reach out to me with comments or questions about what I’m doing, about IJM, or even for recommendations for coffee shops in Chiang Mai.

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.