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A Look Inside

We love visitors in Thailand! But if you’re not able to come experience the houseful of teens (and bucket showers, poisonous centipedes, surprisingly delicious insects, etc) yourself, check out this video for a glimpse of life and work in rural Thailand.

A huge thanks to the National Community Church family for their support of this project, and to the amazing artists Dave and Erica Baker (bakerstories.com) who sacrificed time, talent and treasure to capture the story (not to mention risking themselves and their video equipment in flooded rice paddies.) Grateful for you!

Where’s Burma Again?

Ingredients: Motorcycle, camera, and a few days a stone’s throw away from Burma…  Result: A good break from polluted Bangkok air, a new understanding of the word “refugee”, and a new ability to drive a motorcycle after clocking 250km of windy, mountainous border highways.

I snuck up north to Mae Sot this week with a few objectives —  investigating some new raw material sources for The Well’s sewing and jewelry business and photographing a friend’s knitting project with Karen refugees were two. Mae Sot is a town near the Burma border… (some might recognize it more easily as Rambo’s hometown).

About 60km north of Mae Sot is Mae La, the largest of the nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border estimated to have around 50,000 refugees that have fled Burma’s oppressive government.

The term refugee is one that I’m not sure I truly grasped it until I saw the camp and started putting together the puzzle pieces of “before, during and after” for these oppressed individuals. Too much for a blog post; Burma’s story is a story worth investigating and knowing for yourself. (For more info on Burma’s political situation, the Burma VJ documentary is a good start if you haven’t seen it already.)  But here are a few quick shots to give a glimpse of the Mae La camp.

 

I also spent some time in a small village another hour north of Mae La learning about a friend’s start-up knitting project (check out their hats at www.amfreekaren.org) and a local orphanage. This time we were literally a stone’s throw from Burma with the river providing our only separation, meaning we were carefully watched by the Thai police (and who knows who else) for most of our stay.  I left somewhat disturbed by the odd relationship between Thai border police and, likely, the Burmese officials who like to make sure nobody makes trouble or talks too much about what goes on on the Burma side of the border, or what “business” is conducted between the two countries at these crossings.

I’m fascinated by the Karen culture and that of the other Hill tribes along the border. The oppression they’ve endured is unspeakable but their language, culture and beauty is alive and well.  I felt honored to get to hang out with them for a bit and steal a few photos to share.  Here’s a snapshot of the colorful characters and scenery of “Noh Bo” and a sneak peak of Jaime’s knitting groups.

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Us With Discomfort

I want to be uncomfortable this year.

I’m a missionary, so that should be a given, right?  Not necessarily.

Sure, there are plenty of minor daily discomforts that accompany living and doing ministry overseas.  Just as there are minor daily discomforts in starting a new job, entering a new relationship, moving to a new city, starting a new business, etc.  Whatever the “leap of faith” taken, I’m realizing it can be far too easy to focus on adjusting to the mundane, daily discomforts rather than looking for God to lead us into even more uncomfortable places where He is actively stirring up trouble and desiring to move both in and through us.

God is faithful to bless those small or large steps into difficult, uncomfortable places when obedience to His call and His commands are the driving forces behind the decision.  I can give countless examples of His blessings over the last year as I left comfort and security in career and community to follow His call to “go”.  A phenomenal community of support, financial provision, an inexplicable peace about my purpose, adventures of faith and new experiences of God, and many other blessings accompanied the seemingly risky decision to take the leap into the missions field.  Looking back, I realize it would have been far riskier to hang on to what I had than to surrender it for what God had in store.

I’ve received far more than I ever gave up.

But that was 2010.  Though I can recall and celebrate God’s faithfulness through last year, I don’t want to fall into the trap of settling for yesterday’s leaps of faith or yesterday’s blessings, and turning my attention back to being “comfortable” in my new circumstances.

I want to put into practice what I learned:  that God desires us to actively put ourselves in situations that require Him to work.  To intentionally seek out that which is difficult and uncomfortable.

So… this is my renewed prayer for 2011.  That God would lead us daily into uncomfortable places where we are desperately dependent on Him and singly focused on understanding and reflecting more of His character in this world.   So that in January of 2012, we can look back and celebrate some more.

I hope you don’t mind that I’m taking the liberty of praying it for you and I both.  🙂

 

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy

May God bless you with foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor

Upcountry Observations

A couple weeks in Thailand’s rural rice-field-laced countryside provided a beautiful and welcome change of scenery from the polluted air and noisy, crowded streets of Bangkok.  With a little more language training under my belt and the time-consuming visa/work permit process (mostly) complete, I’ve been able to venture out and spend more time hearing firsthand about both opportunities and challenges facing some of Thailand’s poorest regions.

Most of my time was spent in Buriram province with the family of one of the women that went through The Well program and has returned to her village to serve her family and neighbors in creative ways.  As the first Christian in her community, she has earned a great deal of respect as she’s seen investing in youth, discipleship, education and economic opportunities for her neighbors.  I’ll hope to share more of her story later, but in the meantime let me just say it’s a privilege to get to come alongside and learn from her even as I’m looking to provide some coaching and support for some of her endeavors.

Beyond that, I met and shared laughs and stories with neighbors, had adventures with village kids (including midnight creepy-crawly-creature-hunts in cultivated rice fields and a trip to the local hospital to stitch up my eyebrow after a raucous game of basketball), ate bugs and other peculiar delicacies (personal favorites are boiled silkworms and red ants) and tried to find as many people as possible to ask questions and learn.  I was able to connect with some government officials (our equivalent of state and county extension offices), some local entrepreneurs, as well as a couple of extremely helpful Peace Corps volunteers in and around the province to explore broader issues regarding the agricultural, socioeconomic and educational system of Buriram and Thailand’s broader Isaan region.

A few highlights…

First things first: rice fields as far as they eye can see.  This is harvest time in much of the Isaan region so most families were involved in some way or another with bringing in the rice crop, almost all of which is done by hand.  Taking in the vast countryside and participating in the process of cutting, bundling, thrashing, drying and bagging rice brought home that well-known reality of the importance of rice to the country and its economic importance to nearly every family in the region.

Beyond the rice fields… a Thai family operating an orphanage and doing a number of innovative agricultural projects with the intent to be completely self-supporting in the next few years welcomed me in to share their story.  From rice to aquaculture to chickens to fertilizer – I was inspired by his entrepreneurial attitude and commitment to discover new ways of doing things better.  Their hope is to not only be self-sufficient, but to be a model/teaching farm for neighbors as they look for ways to increase profitability on the same number of acres through relatively simple innovation and experimentation.  It was a blessing and inspiration to hear his story and learn his perspective on both the successes and challenges related to agriculture in the region; I have a lot more to learn from him.

I also managed to connect with a few extremely helpful Peace Corps volunteers in the region.  One volunteer in a neighboring province informed me of a nearby village that has recently undergone major community development and transformation initiatives, all led by a dynamic local Thai woman committed to environmental responsibility and youth development.  Exciting stuff, and it got me thinking that I need to find some mentorship-type resources for some of the women looking to start similar initiatives in their communities.  Another couple introduced me to a phenomenal school in a neighboring province that has fully integrated agricultural education into their curriculum.  The success rate of this school in retaining kids, providing agricultural economic opportunities for youth as well as character/values/responsibility education and affecting broader change in their communities was phenomenal.  For any of you 4-Hers out there though, you’ll recognize the picture below taken at the school… I found 4-H in Thailand! Looking forward to learning more about the model they’ve put together and figure out what it might take to replicate it in some of the villages in which we’re working.

Each of these visits (and many others left unmentioned) gave me about a dozen new ideas to explore. I get energized when I think about opportunities and possibilities of connecting some of our leaders with these potential local mentors and resources as we look to further improve The Well’s upcountry programs.

But… I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the reality of the challenges that I know are framing any ideas or opportunities we’re exploring.  Poverty, broken family structures, inadequate education systems, corrupt government, deeply ingrained class systems, apathy within local religious organizations, cultural tolerance for abuse…the list goes on.  It seems that each village I visit or conversation I have reveals another ring in the complex web of challenges that keeps individuals and entire villages from experiencing the joy and freedom (and the luxury of optimism) that I so take for granted.  That complex web also happens to be what is helping to fuel the continuation of sexual exploitation back here in Bangkok and in other parts of the country.

It’s taking some discipline even for this eternal optimist to keep an eye on the opportunities and not feel overwhelmed and even defeated by the challenges as I get to know the mess involved in attempting the work of transformational development.   But, I’m thankful to have received a timely and powerful reminder from Pastor Heather at National Community Church in DC (delivered via podcast on one of my recent trips out to the countryside) that we don’t have to naively ignore the challenges, nor do we need to feel defeated when we take inventory of their enormity:

…Faith does not ignore the reality of the present situation. Faith is staring reality in the face and watching it bow in the presence of an Almighty God.”

So thankful for that reminder as I continue to learn about the reality of the challenges facing a couple of very special rural Thai villages and watch as that reality bows in the presence of an Almighty God.

 

Refining Revelations

I have much to be thankful for this season.  Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about how specifically thankful I am for God’s relentless pursuit of us and His dedication to our growth and refinement.

I’ve gone through some major refining moments in recent weeks and months in the mission field.  Areas of character that needed refining. Areas of past hurt that needed healing.  There’s nothing like the mission field and living in tight community to reveal your weakest points.

In the process, I’ve come to know on a deeper and more personal level just how much God desires for us to live securely as children of a powerful, constant, forgiving, loving Father.   I’ve learned that it is only out of that security of daughter and sonship that we can truly be a reflection of His character in loving those around us.

I’ve been hurt in relationships and I’ve also done my share of inflicting hurt.  My response to those times is to try with everything I have and everything I know to fix it.  To reconcile.  To win forgiveness and regain affection. I desperately try to figure out how I could love better or to be more lovable.

But I realized in one of my recent failures to love well that my desperate desire to figure out how to do better and avoid failure is misdirected effort.

We know well the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But I think too often we get the order wrong.  We think we have to figure out how to love our neighbors well in order to prove we love God.

The good news is that God doesn’t command us to love well and then leave us to our own understanding of the word and our own devices to carry it out.  In fact, I would venture to say that it’s pretty arrogant to think we can attain to God’s standard of loving people through our own devices.  I know I’m guilty of that arrogance.  I often think that because I’ve been given so much, I owe God a superior performance of doing well and loving well considering what He has given me.

Yikes.

In expending effort to figure out ourselves how to love well, we miss out on the very source of love that is designed to reduce our tendency to fail.

In focusing on the mystery of GOD, in venturing to imagine the width, length, depth, breadth of His love, and in allowing that love to penetrate our hearts, we begin naturally to reflect His love.

This is what it means to obey His command to love.

The more we love Him, the more intently we are willing to look at and to Him.  The deeper we see Him, the more accurate our reflection of Him and of His love.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t fail.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll stop hurting others or being hurt.  We’re human, and those failures can be beautiful and necessary tools of growth and refinement as well as reminders of our need for grace.

But both between and during those times of failure, we are called to seek relentlessly the face of God, to rest securely in His love, and be reminded that we can love only as much as we know and reflect His.

No more pressure to perform.  No more fear of failure.  Just a reminder to remember whose you are and to step out in faith and confidence to love well in light of that.

 

A Day in BKK

Top 10 random thoughts and observations from my first few days in Bangkok (BKK).

1. The Well is amazing — Great vision, amazing staff.  Picture a number of women making beautiful jewelry – laughing and sharing a very different, new life together.  Kids running around the four-story building that houses the activities of the Well while their moms work, making jewelry, artwork or helping run the organization.  Women practicing their English and teaching us Thai, and laughing a lot.  It’s a beautiful thing.

2. Moto-taxis (translation: death-defying, two-wheeled “flying objects” that zip through the crowded rush hour streets of Bangkok and help you actually arrive at your destination on time) are treacherous but SUPER fun.  And the only really efficient means of transportation to and from the BTS (train station).  Can’t think of a better combination of joy and terror, and rainstorms only intensify both emotions.

3. Cooking Thai food is much more fun (and tasty) when ingredients come from the local market.  Fresh chickens, green curry paste, hot peppers (really, really hot peppers)…. so good.  Looking forward to being able to do more than just point and grunt when I find something I want.

4. The Thai language is ridiculously hard.  There are five different ways (tones) to say the same three-letter word “maa”.  I find myself wanting to use a much more familiar four-letter word that I’m told is inappropriate for use by missionaries. 😉

5. I’ve met a number of folks passing through or recently relocating to Bangkok committed to investing in incarnational ministries similar to The Well.  Amazing to hear their stories and their hearts to live with, learn from, love and serve the Thai people in new and creative ways.

6. Skype is an amazing communication tool.  I was skeptical.  After “joining” a get-together of a number of friends in DC while in my pajamas (thanks to the time change), I am no longer.

7. Our kitchen floods when it rains.  Which is every day.  I’m getting used to cooking with bare feet in a few inches of standing water.

8. The “entertainment districts” of Bangkok are just as dark as they were during our visit two years ago, despite some new facades and updated neon lights.  But the women are just as precious and hungry for hugs and new friends.

9. I have loved getting reacquainted with a few folks we met at the Well two years ago, and to see how much they’ve grown, changed and developed into budding leaders, committed to investing in and loving those that remain trapped in a life that they themselves knew so well so few years ago.

10. I love my Bangkok house-mates and look forward to this being a true place of refuge as folks travel through or need a safe place to lay their head.  It’s a blessing of a house and I couldn’t ask for more amazing people to live life with here.

Bonus (#11)… I’m currently obsessed with the book “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Ourselves” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.  A must read for anyone interested in either short or long-term missions, poverty alleviation, economic development…or simply loving your neighbors.  Looking forward to continuing down my book list…

Looking ahead:  Heading to check out Buriram province on Monday for a few days.  Buriram is located in the Isan region, the region from which a vast majority of the women that end up working in the bars in Bangkok come.

More soon…..

The Journey Begins

After more than a full day of traveling, I’m now in Bangkok, settled into what will likely be my new “home” during my time in the city.  Lucky for you, I’ll post something I wrote a on the first leg of the trip when I was slightly more coherent.  Here goes…

I’m settled into my window seat, flying over the mighty Pacific Ocean en route to Narita before heading on to the long-awaited “final destination” of Bangkok.  What better time to document the myriad of memories, thoughts and emotions that have been swirling through my head over the last few weeks?

I meant to update the blog a little more frequently over the last several weeks, but spent more time in a raspberry patch, on the back of a horse, in a combine harvesting wheat, chasing nieces and nephews and exploring miles and miles of U.S. scenic highways rather than with a notebook in hand.  I did, however, have a camera.  Check out photos from the last month on flickr.

I have few words to describe how valuable this last month has been.  I’m grateful for the chance I had to simply take a breath and enjoy the change of pace, place and perspective.  To leave what has been a whirlwind in DC and look ahead to the next chapter, and enjoy time with family and friends and a myriad of adventures along the way.

I’m now sitting here wondering just what God has in store for this next chapter.  I’m en route with no expectations other than to keep my eyes, ears and heart open; not unlike my journey to Thailand almost two years ago.  Only this time I have a little more luggage and an uncertain return date.

With no expectations, my first order of business is to simply listen. Watch. Absorb. Learn.

To listen to the Thai language and begin to hear the thoughts, challenges and hopes of those I meet… and hopefully learn to speak well enough to ask some questions.

To watch and absorb the cultures and traditions of the Thai people.

To watch and learn the ways that those at The Well have learned to serve God and serve the men and women of Thailand.

To keep watch for unmet needs, and keep an open mind as to creative ways to contribute.

And in the process, watch and listen for the ways that God wishes to reveal Himself in Thailand.  What He’ll reveal about His character, and just how much He cares for His children.

Am I anxious?  Nervous?  Scared?  Excited?  I’m not really sure. My extremely gracious sister that dropped me off at the airport might have a better idea… she got to witness the multiple packing and “pesky details” meltdowns that occurred prior to the launch.  But all things considered I feel uncharacteristically calm as I sit here on the plane.

I know this calm has nothing to do with me, but I attribute it to the following:

The support and prayers of family and friends. God answered those prayers for a smooth journey in a big way.  No visa issues.  No flight issues.  Easy peasey everything.

The reminders of the journey that brought me to this place.  The silent but unmistakable call to go and continued “green lights” and open doors that made it possible.

The faith of those that have gone before me.  Whether that be the missionaries that have served in Thailand previously, those that are there now, or those that have launched elsewhere in the world (not to mention any names…. Adam Taylor…..) Each offer the gift of inspiration.

I’m grateful to be here. Grateful for those that sent me off with such generosity. Grateful in advance for the work that is ahead.

So, here we go.  The journey begins.