A Boy Named Solomon

I met a precious family on a concrete overpass over one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares the other night.

A 32-year-old mother with two little girls – ages 4 and nearly 1. Her son joined us a little while later.  When we asked how old he was, he asked his mom whether he should tell his real age or the age he uses when he’s asking for food or money. She told him he could tell us the truth. 11. But he gets more money and food if he tells people he is only 6, and he could certainly pass for that age based on his small size.

But what he lacks in size he makes up for in personality and wit.  As much as I fell in love with the mom and her sweet daughters, I was fascinated by the little boy.

I call him Solomon.

They’ve been in Thailand for some time, having migrated across the border from Cambodia after her husband left her for another woman and sold their house, leaving her with nothing except her sweet children. Cambodia had nothing for them – not even food. They’re able to at least find food in Thailand, though that doesn’t mean it’s easy. One of the many dangers, she’s left to fend off a Japanese man who approaches her on a daily basis offering her 100,000 baht (~3,300 USD) to buy her beautiful little 1-year-old daughter.

Jup and I had a blast playing with the kids, singing Thai kid songs with them and listening to Mom sing an old Christian hymn in her native tongue, all the while getting weird looks from passers by, both foreign and Thai.  Some looked on with pity.  Others looked somewhere between perplexed and disgusted as we sat on the dirty ground sharing food and laughs in the “home” of this homeless family.

At lot about this particular night left me unsettled.  The thought of people lurking waiting to purchase and traffic homeless kids. Juxtaposing the kindness of the poor street vendors that had purchased a mat for this family so they didn’t have to sleep on the ground with the ambivalent wealthy folks passing by in their rush to the next entertainment stop. The list goes on.

But I was distracted from the injustices of the situation by the sheer potential I saw in little Solomon.

When we asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to be a soldier because “I want to protect Thailand. I love Thailand. Thai people have good hearts.” Hungry for knowledge, he wants to be able to speak good Thai and English…and he threw in Chinese for good measure too.

We took him and his sister to the 7-Eleven nearby to buy some milk and food and a couple simple art supplies. Solomon’s sister wanted an expensive art set, but he quickly told her that he found one that was just as good but much less expensive.

We then went to the milk aisle and asked Solomon which kind he likes to drink.  Of the two options, he pointed to the first one and matter-of-factly stated that, though this one would make him healthy, the second one would make him clever.

He chose clever.

Precious.

I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of the story. We’re exploring ways to help this family, but the list of complications is long.

What will it take to give clever little Solomon some hope for his future?

I can’t help but think that if Solomon and his family are given some hope for their future, it might help give Thailand and Cambodia some hope for theirs.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:26-29

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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

Christmas All Over the World

90 degrees notwithstanding, it’s Christmas-time in Bangkok.

Caroling over the weekend in and around our neighborhood ushered in the Christmas spirit in style.  For the record, I’m a fan of caroling Thai-style…. shorts, flip flops, piled in the back of a songtaew (converted pickup truck with benches in the back) and each stop generally results in being invited in for food in mass quantities.  Ice cream might replace hot cocoa and “kha haai mii kwaam suk nai wan Christmas le suk san wan bpii maai” takes the place of “we wish you a Merry Christmas”, but degrees of Christmas joy certainly aren’t contingent on language, climate or any other tradition that we hold so dear for Christmas in America.  My personal favorite part of the caroling evening was a random stop at our local open-air market (adjacent our oft-frequented 7-Eleven) for a few songs, much to the embarrassment of half the singing crew as they felt overly exposed in our Santa hats and reindeer antlers amongst n0t-quite-strangers-but-not-yet-friends.

An evening of Christmas songs in Thai and English laced with laughter made for good soul food, and the nine stops with meals/food at each one ensured I won’t actually need another meal until Christmas.

Caroling was just the start, though.  Tonight kicked off a series of Christmas parties of varying shapes and sizes, hosted by a number of ministries in Bangkok with hearts for men and women in the sex industry.

A group of us from The Well spent the evening in Chinatown sharing gifts with women with whom we have relationships and meeting some new friends.  We find some of the hardest of the hard stuff in our trips to Chinatown; stuff that’s not comfortable or particularly fun to share.  A picture: One woman with two young boys, ages 9 and 11…  They sleep in a storefront on one of the main streets where the girls work and the boys suffer from major skin problems due to mosquito bites from sleeping in the open air.  The 11-year-old brother recently “ran away” for a while, which we later found out consisted of leaving with some foreign customers; he was back tonight.  We went to see them earlier this week to bring them to The Well (at their request) but an abnormal cool/dry season rainfall foiled our plans and they didn’t show.  After spending some time with them tonight, they said they will come check out The Well tomorrow.  We’re hoping  and praying they actually will.  Please pray for this precious family and the many others with whom we’re developing friendships in Chinatown.

Tomorrow night Jup and I will be joining a group of volunteers from the “Home of New Beginnings” ministry as they host a Christmas party for women working in Soi Cowboy and Nana, two of Bangkok’s main red light districts.  Between 400-600 women are expected to join in the festivities over the course of two evenings.  These parties provide a beautiful opportunity for women to experience a gift of love and hear about the true meaning of Christmas; for many it will be the first time they hear the story of Jesus.   Praying that those that attend will experience a love beyond anything they’ve known and be given real, tangible hope for new beginnings.

We’ll be hosting a “smaller” gathering here at our house over the weekend for the women with whom we’ve developed closer friendships — just an evening of food, fun and an opportunity for some of the women at The Well to share their victorious stories with women who face what they too once faced.  Spaghetti’s on the menu at the request of a few of our girls — not exactly a traditional Christmas dinner, but their wish is my command!  (Green curry will also be on the menu since Thai people rarely truly enjoy Western food even if they request it…) Praying that it will be an evening that blesses the girls this Christmas and gives them yet another glimpse of love and hope for freedom.

A good friend that has begun a ministry (called dton naam ministries) specifically reaching out to ladyboys will be hosting a Christmas gathering next week as well at their coffee shop which is nearing completion.  I’m a huge fan of this ministry and heart to provide opportunities for ladyboys to leave prostitution and gain legitimate job skills while receiving healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Please keep Celeste, her staff and this unique and very important ministry in your prayers this next week and heading into the new year!

Parties, gift giving, preparing to pour out joy and messages of hope … it’s all very “Christmas-y” and yet not at all like any Christmas I’ve experienced.   My prayers are much different than they used to be; I find myself unsure what even to pray.  It seems trite to pray for ‘peace and joy” for women, men and families that have endured so much and have so little to look forward to.  I can pray that they experience the love of Christ and a message of hope, but even that seems…well… tired, for lack of a better word.

Isaiah 25:5 leapt from the pages this last week:  “You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud so the song of the ruthless is put down…  God will wipe away tears from all faces… let us rejoice and be glad!

Amazing how God gives new pictures and fresh perspectives at just the right time to remind us what to hope for and how to pray.

I’m praying this week that “the noise of the foreigners” and the “songs of the ruthless” would be subdued completely.  Those noisy voices of customers that tell women they’re worth nothing more than $10-20 per night.  Those songs that tell them their destiny was written when they were born into their respective social class or economic situation. That they’re “used goods” that have no worth or value.  That their situation of poverty and/or exploitation is hopeless.

I’m now envisioning — and trusting — that God will use these opportunities over the next week to turn down the volume knob of that noise.  That it would be silenced if even for a moment to allow room for messages of truth, love and hope to seep in.  And that these moments would lay the foundation for a more permanent silencing of those voices; for tears to be replaced with rejoicing and for many ‘new beginnings’ as we head into a new year.

We would love your prayers as we continue through what is a big week for many ministries here in Bangkok.

Bring on the Christmas cheer!

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.

 

Commercial Break: What is “The Well”?

After getting a number of questions about what all goes on here, I decided it’s time for a brief commercial break to highlight what this “well” is actually about.

The Well consists of a small group of Christians focused on bringing change to Thailand through personal, family and social transformation.  Their “Reach, Teach, Send” strategy is based on John 4 where Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman resulted in a changed life and that one changed life resulted in a transformed community.

The organization looks for innovative ways to help women in the sex industry, or at risk of entering it, find healing and a new start.  We believe that these women, like the woman at the well, can experience personal healing and transformation as well as be powerful agents of change in their families and communities.

That all sounds great, right?  But you’re probably still wondering what we actually do.

Reach

You may have heard me talk (or write) about our nights spent in Thailand’s red light districts developing relationships with women in the sex industry.  We seek simply to build friendships and speak love and hope into their lives in the process.  If they express an interest in finding alternative income sources or further education, we try to offer ways for them to do that.

Teach

The “Teach” component is multi-faceted and ever-evolving.  The organization looks to address physical needs (by providing a place for the women to come and stay), emotional needs (crisis intervention and counseling), spiritual needs (discipleship) as well as provide opportunities for education and skill development.  Workshops on health, parenting, business/entrepreneurship, emotional healing, etc. supplement courses in English and other core subjects.  In addition to the scheduled education programs, the women are also offered the opportunity to earn income by taking part in “The Well Products” business, consisting of training in sewing, jewelry making and paper products.  A children’s center on site offers child care while the women study and work.

Jewelry party in Bangkok this last weekend featuring The Well Products

The hope is to reform the education modules in the future to move toward designing clear career paths for the women that enter The Well programs. We’re also on the lookout for ideas and partners in finding new, innovative ways to provide employment opportunities for single mothers.

Send

The Well seeks to love and disciple women as long as they need it, with the goal of equipping them to at some point go out and be leaders of their families and communities.

I’m heading out of Bangkok tonight to spend a week with one of these women that has been “sent”.  She has a story that will break your heart but a passion for hope and growth and progress for her community and country that will both humble and inspire you.  She has returned to her rural community and is investing in teaching, discipling and creating business and employment opportunities for women there.

She’s what The Well is all about.

I’m going to visit her first and foremost to learn from her.  And her neighbors.  And their neighbors… and a few others that are involved in fascinating development-minded projects in the area that have been gracious enough to let me hear their stories.

Because the economy of the region is heavily reliant on agriculture, we’re looking for ways to possibly engage in agricultural education and/or innovation that can help provide income for families in a way that would avoid the need for urban migration.  That is, we’re looking for ways to spark longer-term change in families and communities that will keep young girls or young mothers from migrating to the city (and too often the bars) for economic reasons.

But first, I’m going simply to listen and learn.   Looking forward to sharing stories after the trip!

1000 Words Aren’t Enough

We easily accept that a picture can be worth a thousand words.  But how often do we stop with the thousand words it speaks?  What about the rest of the story?

I took my camera to Soi Cowboy last week for the first time, trying to get some images for awareness-raising efforts.  And I hated every second of it.  As someone that usually enjoys being behind a lens, this threw me for a loop.

I hated looking through a lens at that place; I would much prefer to look in their eyes and hear the stories of the women we meet rather than “capture” the scenes that can’t possibly come close to telling the real stories of the past or dreams of the future.

I realized going there with a camera was risky.  I was risking looking (and feeling) like I was reducing women to subjects and statistics rather than affirming their worth and value.  Beyond that, I feared what reaction I might get to the photos.  I feared that others might see the photos and pass judgments.  Or even worse, that people might simply react with pity, shake their head and go on their way.

Either way, I realized that I’m terrified to take photos of the hard stuff because I know all too well how easy it is to stop with the “thousand words” and not bother to find out the rest of the story.

As uncomfortable as this makes me, I was reminded by someone I respect that it’s a turmoil we have to face.

I have the privilege of working alongside some incredible people and a handful of ministries that are committed to getting to know both stories of the past and dreams for the future.  Most of these people were moved at some point or another by the reality of the injustices we saw – whether it was through a photograph, a video, or seeing it in person.  “Seeing” it offered an invitation to enter in.

I guess that makes the turmoil worth it.  It’s my hope that any images used from this shoot or any others would not evoke judgment. Or pity. But that they would be an invitation for others to be moved with compassion to come and find out the rest of the story.

Tomorrow we’ll be attending a full day networking event with Thai Christian business leaders and a number of local non-profits. It’s an opportunity for Thai leaders to better understand what God is doing in the country and for ministries like The Well to find committed, local leaders to partner in our efforts.

We would love your prayers for God to move in the hearts of those at the meeting — that they would be compelled to want to learn the stories behind the images.

Whose Daughter?

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