Posts Tagged ‘ Lessons Learned ’

Mountains and Messes

Who doesn’t love being on the mountain top?  I suppose there are a few folks out there afraid of heights, but even if you don’t like them in the literal sense I’m guessing you like them in the figurative sense.

I confess I have a small obsession for these high places both literally and figuratively.

Some of my favorite memories growing up were watching magnificent storms roll in from 50+ miles away from the ranch at home; the photo above can’t do it justice.  Or drinking in the uninhibited views from my favorite Idaho peaks in the Seven Devils range or on top of Mount Borah.  Breathing in the thin air at the top of Cotopaxi in Ecuador or the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. Dangling my feet and peering over the crag on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

These mountain top moments represent the times I feel closest to my Creator, standing (or falling down) in awe of His wonder, power and majesty.  I find joy and perspective in those places. Conviction in purpose and calling. Divine energy.

I’m spoiled with frequent mountain top moments in Thailand.  Not so many literal ones in this tropical climate, but plenty of figurative ones to keep me energized in the morning.

They generally look something like:  Seeing street kids escape their heartbreaking reality for a moment as we play games and laugh together. Holding the dream-like gaze of a new friend as we talk about possibilities for her life outside the bar as customers come and go in the background. Walking and chatting with a couple of teenagers that have just learned the message of Christ for the first time and are overflowing with questions. Photographing the wedding of a student and watching the couple commit to raising their adorable daughter together. Busting up ground with a bunch of ragamuffin kids in the countryside as we plan out a new garden plot.

But then we leave those moments and face the reality of the hard stuff that follows.  The fact that those street kids that were able to escape for a moment will still have to sleep on the street and will probably get deported again soon. Walking with this new friend through the uphill battle of trying to leave this bar scene, peppered with disappointment and a system working against her. Discipling teenagers who have no healthy role models in their lives and who are only in our community a few months out of the year. Seeing the newly-wed couple walk through the difficulty of relationship and child-rearing, even in community, as they struggle with serious addictions and trust issues.

Off the mountain and into the valley we go.

The reality is, life is tough in the valley.  Brokenness and poverty – be it material, spiritual, relational, etc – are ugly and often seem unfixable.  Helping someone in such complex environments is like trying to catch a bar of soap in the shower. Or rather, trying to catch a bathtub full of bars of soap.

I confess I’m often tempted to run away to build a house on the mountain top.  I can better stomach brokenness and poverty from high up and far away, where I have clear and unobstructed perspective that God is bigger and more powerful than they are.  In other words, I would love to live for those first moments of hopefulness and avoid the messy aftermath that happens in reality.

A friend recently dropped one of those timely reality-checks on me as she reminded me that God didn’t create us to DWELL on the mountain top.  God created us for the valley.

The valley is messy, but it’s where He’s working.  The Kingdom is built when we step into others’ messes, when we walk people out of messes, and sometimes when we make messes that need to be created.  The mess of the valley is where He calls us to dwell.

Can you imagine a house on the top of Half Dome? No way.  For one, it’s crazy-dangerous.  And it’s not “real life.”  If I lived up there, not only would I likely get struck by lightening but I would quickly lose touch with the beauty and intricate complexity of what I was seeing below.  Part of the reason I like the mountain top is the joy of going back down and sharing what I saw, experienced and learned.

Why, then, in our spiritual lives do we always want to build a house on the mountain?

Look at Moses – my all-time favorite mountain man.  Moses met with God on the mountain. We all have the flannel board scene of the burning bush burned into our memory.  But how many of us remember that Moses had to go down from the mountain to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  In other words, he had to leave the mountain for a mess.  Fast forward to post-Red-Sea-parting and the Israelites freed from Egypt… God summoned Moses back up to the mountain again, this time to give him the Ten Commandments.  Did he stay up there this time?  Nope. Moses came down from the mountain and stepped into another enormous mess, carrying the power and presence of God to make history in the valley.

Imagine what would have happened if Moses had stayed up on the mountain?

In our case, what would happen if we left the conversation at “there’s hope for you” and then failed to walk with her through the mess of stepping into that hope?  What would happen if we simply handed over the photos of the beautiful wedding and failed to walk with them through the mess of relationship?  What would happen if we left the ragamuffins with this plot of cultivated soil without walking with them through the process of planting, tending and harvesting a crop?

I’m asking myself these questions and would and invite you to join in asking yourself as well.

How often do we live FOR those mountain top moments — those joyful moments of safety and security where we can just point to God at work and clap our hands — rather than live BY them as we step down and join God in His work amidst the mess of the valley?  What mess is God calling you into?

When we’re in the valley, how can we better treasure those mountain top moments?  How can we develop the discipline of “lifting our eyes up to the mountain” and be sustained by what we’ve seen there rather than just seeking out the next mountain top moment?

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Where does my help come from?”   – Psalm 121:1 


Country Bumpkin

The first of a series on Buriram…

As much as I love our activities in Bangkok, the biggest area on my heart here in Thailand is the vast expanse of rice fields that make up Thailand’s rural Isaan region — a region known for it’s extreme poverty and as “home” to the vast majority of the women we meet and serve in Bangkok.  My biggest hope here is to somehow grasp the root factors leading to the migration of women from the rice fields to the red light districts and, God-willing, invest in some areas that will help break the cycle on a holistic and sustainable basis.

I admit to having many assumptions about those root factors before I came here.  Assumptions about poverty.  Assumptions about needs, resources, values, desires of communities to change and assumptions of what I might be able to do to “help.”

Some much brighter minds than mine warn of these assumptions and accompanying attitudes with respect to how to tackle poverty.  Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself” gave me some paradigm shifting food for thought last fall which shaped my approach to Buriram:

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.

I had to chew on that one for a while, I admit.

The alternative to entering a situation with a god-complex (or the attitude that I’m less poor and therefore have come to “help” people out of their helpless state) is entering a situation with humility and the primary objective to learn.  Rather than documenting the number of ways that they could or should be better off (read: more like us), it’s seeking their unique value and worth.

Corbett and Fikkert characterize it this way: “By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

So, I spent the last several trips trying to rid myself of my western pride, attitudes and assumptions by simply being a part of the community and not really trying to change, or do, anything.  I hoped simply to build relationships. As a result, I was able to see that there are many people in Buriram far less poor than I am in many ways and I have a great deal to learn from them.

One thing working against me… Many in the region are used to white people coming in and throwing down money to “fix things.”  Sadly, many of the nicer things in the area came as a result of an influx of foreign money, often through a foreign husband.  Sometimes those foreign husbands are still around, some visit every few years, but most are out of the picture.  I could write another blog post on this, or perhaps a thesis (which I should be working on right now instead of blogging, by the way…) but I’ll refrain for now.  I’ll simply observe that the allure of foreign wealth is a significant contributing factor to young women migrating to the city — and to the red light districts — to find a husband.

It leaves me with the uphill battle convincing the community that I’m different than the white people they’re used to; that I’m not a source of quick wealth.

I just have to convince them I’m not a foreigner at all.

Fast forward to now.  My time just hanging out and being one of the family members has paid some dividends.  When someone calls me a foreigner, the kids quickly and protectively shout back before I ever get the chance:  “mai chai farang – khao bpen khon thai leeo”.   She’s not a foreigner – she’s Thai!   It’s a running joke now; I still stick out like a sore thumb, but those words bring me great joy.

How did that happen?  Pretty sure a gracious God had something to do with it.

Some say I earned those stripes by eating (and loving) their local specialties of fermented-fish-flavored spicy food (nothing earns you more rapport with Thais than eating their food in mass quantities).  Snacking on bugs generally turns some heads; they’re not used to foreigners eating them other than for a possible photo-op. I think the scale tipped when I broke a flip flop but instead of tossing it, I fixed it with a piece of rope and kept wearing it until someone sneakily tossed them while I was asleep.  (I’m still a little bitter about that one.)

I think it’s starting to stick that, despite my white skin and my incessant questions, I’m just another Buriram sister, cousin, aunt or niece.  In many ways, more country bumpkin than they are.

Thankful for the chance to be welcomed into their community and looking forward to what this next season has in store.

Next up — putting the hand to the plow…

All Things New

New things can be scary.  New sights, people, language, culture, climate, smells, foods, routines.  And that’s just the short list.  Add to that new lessons, new paradigms, new worldviews… These are the things I’m absorbing on a daily basis.  I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it’s downright terrifying at times.

Timeout  for a quick example?  “Ordering” lunch (read: pointing and grunting) from a street vendor and having NO idea what I just received.  I found out later it was noodle soup with pig’s blood. Quite good, actually.  So good that I ordered it on purpose today.

The thought of not knowing how quickly or slowly I might absorb the language and culture here and regain my independence is unsettling.  The thought of not really knowing what my time here will look like or what I may or may not be able to contribute or “accomplish” is awkward and uncomfortable.  The thought of not using a western-style bathroom or a normal shower for an unspecified amount of time is….well….frightening.

Above all, the thought of being here in a new place, facing the immensity of the issue of sexual exploitation and the magnitude of the hurt and brokenness that results from it, with seemingly little to offer other than an available heart and willing hands is downright terrifying.

But I confess I can’t help but find joy in the “new”.  I’m sitting here wondering where this inexplicable peace – this comfort in the uncomfortable – is coming from.

The Revelation passage that speaks of God making all things new has been ringing through my head these last few “first days” in Bangkok where everything is new.  In the process, I’ve seen a different side of this verse.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said,

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:4-5 (ESV)

In reading this passage, I’ve always simply absorbed the imagery of  God taking away all the “bad things” and replacing them with “good things” in His time, and I’ve found great joy in anticipating that day when all things are new. It can’t seem to get here soon enough, particularly when I’m exposed to sides of this life that are far from what I would consider “good” like the devastating issues of poverty, hurt and brokenness.

But I’ve always put this passage in a box.  I’ve only ever thought of it in the context of the end of time.  No more tears.  No more death.  No more “bad things.”  It’s going to be one big, happy party.  But we have to wait around for it. It’s not in our nature, I don’t think, to seek the “all things new” that God might have for us in the meantime.

We tend to think new in the here and now is scary.  It’s usually challenging and sometimes highly uncomfortable.  Sure, we all know and generally like the thought that God can make us “new creations”  (2 Corinthians 5:17) but we don’t generally like it when we’re thrown into a situation where we actually have to be new.  Or seek something new.

The little box that I’ve put this passage in is getting thrown wide open. And I’m sure my first week or so in Bangkok is only the beginning.

What I’ve learned so far:  I’ve learned it is indeed the nature of God to call us to “all things new” in the here and now.  Of course it won’t be truly finished for a while, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t chase it now.

Don’t get freaked out by this.  I’m not saying everyone should move to Bangkok.  (Although I would LOVE it if you did….)  That new can look different to everyone.  For me, it was being thrown into a new culture with a new commissioning, in order to see a new side of God’s character as He changes the lives of those around me. For many of the women I’m meeting, it’s God calling them to a new environment where they are cared for, invested in and challenged as they experience healing and restoration.  I have no idea what it might look like for you.  Maybe healing. Maybe re-commissioning.  Maybe a change of heart or a restored relationship.  Maybe something totally different.

But I’m convinced that God doesn’t call us to homeostasis.  He calls us to allow Him to make “all things new.”

We just can’t be surprised when the way it happens isn’t comfortable.  Healing and restoration aren’t comfortable.  Restored relationships aren’t comfortable, whether it’s to God, ourselves or each other.  The process of discovering and pursuing passions and callings isn’t comfortable. Being repurposed or re-commissioned isn’t comfortable.  Moving across the world – or even across town, if that’s what you’re called to do – isn’t usually comfortable.

Pretty much everything outside of complete homeostasis is uncomfortable.  On the cover, it doesn’t look like a “good thing”; in fact, we tend to equate uncomfortable with bad.  And that incorrect equation robs us of greater, “new” things that might be in store.

So, my conclusion.  Finally.  It’s the anticipation of what this “new” actually represents that’s causing this inexplicable peace and joy.  This is God’s way of yanking me out of homeostasis and re-commissioning me to live with, learn from and learn to serve these beautiful people halfway around the world.

Thailand is my “all things new” right now.  And it’s not comfortable, particularly.  But it’s good.

What’s yours?