Wrestling with Tragedy

Last week I was studying for one of my classes for my grad program with Wheaton. The class, Theology of Development, gave me a lot to think about regarding the mission of God. The last day, our professor began a stimulating dialogue on reconciling our understanding of a compassionate and merciful God with a heart for all nations to know him with some of the stories like wiping out the Canaanites. We read a great article by Christopher Wright called, ‘What about the Canaanites’ that helped give us some understanding for God’s judgment and specific punishment verses his desire for all to know him and be loved by him. At the conclusion, our professor shared this amazing story.

In 1914, a man named Fred, from Vancouver Canada, got married on August 28, just around the time of the beginning of WWI. He wanted to be a preacher and evangelist like his mentor Harry Ironside. On his one year anniversary his wife went into labor with their first child, but due to complications she could not survive the delivery. Both mother and child were lost.

He hit a point of crisis of faith. How could a good and gracious God allow something of such seeming cruelty and injustice happen to him, a man devoting his life to the service of God? Would Fred throw in the towel and walk away from all he invested into the kingdom of God, or would he stay in the game? Fred never wrote any books or explained how he dealt with his personal tragedy. However, he stayed in the game.

A few years later, on November 11, 1918, Fred was married again to a woman named Clara. They continued to pursue a life of ministry before God and eventually had four children. The second was named Herbert, the third James and the fourth Jane.

Herbert (Bert) and his wife went off to Peru in 1949 to work with natives along the river. They still live in Peru after serving for 60 years in the mission of God. They were never able to have children. This freed them up to have a mobile life and ministry. Bert and his wife had a launch, and they would take their boat up and down the river preaching the gospel to villages along the river. There is not an exact count of the churches started through their life and devotion to the mission of God, but more than 120 churches can credit their beginning to these missional servants of God.

You may know their younger brother better by Jim Elliot. He went three years later with his wife Elizabeth to Ecuador. However, the life of Jim Elliot was cut short when he was killed by the Auca Indians in 1956, a story that came to life through the movie, ‘End of the Spear’ and in books.

We know Jim and his wife Elizabeth have done much to give people a heart to serve in overseas mission. Jim’s younger sister Jane had some children also, one of which was my professor, Steve Hawthorne, M.D. (a missionary to Bolivia for the past 20 years).

Jim Elliot, who graduated top of his class in ancient languages from Wheaton College and his brother, who never felt as gifted as his younger brother, provide a picture with many questions. Why did God allow one brother to be taken so early and another to live a long productive life? If it were up to any of us, we would have seen the greater potential of Jim Elliot rather than Bert Elliot.

These are the hard questions to ask, and I am sure they have been asked ever since the prophets, who Hebrews 11 says were the world was unfit for, have asked. Maybe even the relatives of James and John asked such questions. They asked Jesus if they could follow him, and he said only if you are willing to drink from the cup I will drink of. They said yes. One brother, James, was taken shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven as one of the early martyrs. John lived most of the 1st century helping shape the early church with his letters and love.

How can we wrestle through the hard things in life?

Birthdays and Monks

Birthdays and monks for the Thai Buddhist go hand in hand. We often take for granted the culture we live in here. Our students talk about going to temple for important days or to make merit and fulfill ritual duty. We see the temples and watch people offer incense and give merit there. Wherever we travel in Thailand, we always observe these Buddhist practices. We don’t live next to a temple, so we don’t see this up close very often.

However, while I was in Chiang Mai studying for my master’s with Wheaton College, I witnessed a typical Thai family interacting with the monk for their birthday ritual. One early morning, I saw the scene play out when the shop owner across from the YMCA where I was staying came out to meet the monk.

In Thailand, monks walk up and down the street every morning so that people can bring rice, other food, or money to them and they can in turn bless them. On that particular morning, as my friend and I were walking across the street to buy my morning waffles (thinking of donkey in Shrek), the shop owner came outside as he was opening business for the day.

He met the monk and gave him some food and offerings in order to receive a blessing. The shop owner and his wife saw our curious faces, so he told us it was his birthday. After the offerings were received, the monk  chanted a blessing over the couple. The blessing includes all good things anyone would want in their next year such as: wealth, health, good business at their shop, and much more. When the monk went on his way, my friend and I sang happy birthday to them and bought my waffles before class.

A Story About Worldview

As I am studying a class on intercultural ministry, I came across this great example of seeing life through a different world view.

Worldview simply means the way we see the world. Some people see things black and white, while others see things more grey. Places in the world have an honor and shame based culture, while other places live fear based always trying to appease the spirits.

Here is the example from a view years ago, but still makes the point clearly.

A medical missionary working in India wanted to demonstrate the benefits of modern surgery to people who had had minimal contact with western technology.  He invited a young Indian to be present in the operating room while he removed a large goiter from the young Indian’s aunt.

Immediately following the surgery, the nephew hurried home and recounted the proceedings to the village elders.  This is the account of the Indian nephew…:

“I was taken to the temple of healing where, after being gowned in holy white robes and my face and head covered, I was led to the Holy of Holies and seated in a corner.”

“The presence of the gods in the sanctuary was so overpowering that not only I but everyone entering hid his face and covered his head.  The doctor Sahib came into the holy of holies and washed his unclean hands for many minutes in a ritual of purification.  Between washings he anointed his hands with oil.”

 “Then there came into the room a priestess who sat at the head of the sacrificial altar and invoked the blessings of the gods.”


“After this she breathed upon my aunt and caused her to fall into a deep sleep.

 “When my aunt was deep in slumber, the Doctor Sahib slit her throat from ear to ear as a sacrificial gesture, trying to appease the gods with her blood.  He and his assistant priests wrestled with the evil spirits for a long time.  The strain of battle was so great that the Sahib’s forehead became wet with perspiration and a priestess mopped his brow many times.  Finally the evil spirits were overcome and so they rushed from the neck of my aunt, leaving her no longer possessed.”

(Health, The Bible and The Church Daniel Fountain, Billy Graham Centre, 1989,23 24)

When we minister in another culture, we need to know where the people are coming from. If we want to communicate anything to them, we need to know how they will receive what we say.

A favorite story here in Bangkok tells of when the people living at Our Home Chapel heard a sound in the kitchen in the middle of the night. The westerners thought there was a burglar, while the Thai people thought it was a ghost.

Some people see things influenced through the spiritual world, while others look at things purely from the scientific vantage point. How would you communicate what happens in the above situation?

 The second thing I see in this story is how God’s good news crosses all barriers and cultural differences.

What are some examples of worldview that show a difference in how we see the world we live in?

Currency in Other Countries

When we travel to neighboring countries we get to see a variety of different currencies. In Thailand, we use the baht which has portraits of the king displayed on its paper and coins.

Thai Baht by swimntina.

Thai Baht

The most interesting part of new currency for me is figuring out the exchange rate.

In Indonesia it was pretty easy to convert our money as it was about 10,000 rupiah to one dollar. In Vietnam, we had more difficulty as it was around 16,000 to $1.

On our latest trip across the border, we visited Laos which had an 8,200 kiep to one dollar rate. That made for complex quick math in the head to figure out how many dollars a meal costs or if we were getting a good price on a souvenir.

Secondly, we always feel so rich. You only need a little more than $100 to withdraw from an ATM, and you can call yourself a millionaire. I try to not get crazy and become like the guys in Dumb and Dumber who are giving out tips to bellhops and attendants at the hotel with $100 bills, I mean 50,000 kiep bills, which is the largest bill in Laos.

I kept scolding Tina for spending so much money on our meals, 42,000 (which sounds like a lot more when you say it out loud slowly). However, their largest bill, the 50,000 bill is difficult to get change for different vendors. We had to be intentional on where we spent it, so we would have smaller currency to give to the motorcycle taxis (they carried us in a side cart), or other shop keepers.

The 50,000 bill would be equivalent to about $6. Imagine if our largest bill was a $5 bill. And in order to pay for anything expensive you would have to pull out a large wad of Lincoln’s. I kept mulling over how different a world some of these small nations are. Their largest bill equals such a small amount of our money. They don’t use checks, so paying for rent takes wads of bills.

Teacher’s Day Ceremony

Teacher's Day flowers by swimntina.

Teachers become like second parents to a child for a year of their life. They teach them knowledge, valuable life skills, and good values. Teachers spend more waking hours every day with children than their parents do, all in a quest for well-educated adults. Because of all this, every year there is a Teacher’s Day where students come in to thank their teachers for all they did that school year. In America, you usually get a nice lunch, some cards, and maybe some flowers from your students, at least those who chose to celebrate.

You might think that this post is at an odd time of the year, since it is January and not May. Here in Thailand, they don’t wait until the end of the school year to honor their teachers. It was traditionally held at the beginning of the school year, but has been changed to the beginning of the calendar year at many schools. It is traditionally held on a Thursday for good luck.  Since we teach at a language tutorial school, we don’t get have this at our school. I was invited to a Teacher’s Day this last week at an elementary school and I want to share my experience with you.

Teacher’s Day is called Kruu Wai in Thai. Literally this means Wai-ing your teacher. A wai is a traditional way of greeting and showing respect to a person older, or in a higher position, than you. Teacher’s Day is a very formal ceremony where each student goes to their teacher to honor and respect them. In return, the teachers bless each child.

Interestingly, Teacher’s Day started as a ceremony in the Buddhist temple. You see, students would go to the temple to get training from the monks. Each year they would honor the monk for teaching them and then he would chant a blessing aver them. Today, Teacher’s Day is celebrated at schools and only retains hints of the Buddhist backgrounds. This just shows that holidays and celebrations in Thailand can be “Christianized,” or simply “de-Buddaized.” I say this because most holidays and celebrations are rooted in Buddhism and attending the temple. As Christians we should make sure that Thai Christians don’t lose their heritage and traditions simply because they are Christians.

The students all sit on the floor, with their feet tucked behind them in straight rows and the teachers all sit in chairs at the front of the room. Students bring several speeches that talk about how special their teachers are. At this point, several of the teachers had tears in their eyes and on their cheeks. Then the students go into a deep wai by lying on the floor with their hands up at their foreheads.

The head of the school is then honored and gives a speech about the greatness of teachers. At this point, several of the students had to wipe away tears from their eyes. This was so precious to me, to think that students can be so moved by thinking about what their teachers do for them.

Then it was time to honor the teachers. The students sang a song about teachers and how hard they work and care for their students and then went forward row by row. They crawled on their knees so that they would be taller than their teachers, who were still sitting. Each student brought flowers to present to their teacher. The students moved as one unit, even wai-ing at the same moment. This was a beautiful picture of unity and respect. This ceremony must make teachers feel very special.

A Community of Faith in Laos

While visiting our friend in Laos, we got to experience church in the way they have church. As Westerners, they don’t get to participate with the Laotian Christians as that would draw unwarranted attention onto the local church. Therefore, they have small house church meetings with monthly gatherings together.

We happened to be with them on this meeting. Everyone came together discreetly to have the meeting. Inside the house, the twin toddlers got excited to sing songs and fellowship as they do on that first Sunday of the month. We sang some songs accappella. A different person brings the message each month as it rotates between a few people.

I felt like I was in the ideal of what a house church would be, Christians genuinely following Jesus and sharing with each other as they walk the journey of faith. There was community, the word of God, worship and prayer together. The greatest potential for a house church is discipleship and multiplication. I could see discipleship, especially as the nature of the meeting has people  coming with a certain commitment, considering the context in which they meet. When faith is illegal, people tend to hold more strongly to their convictions.

The expression of church did not flow out of a discontentment with traditional or established churches, but a necessity to be under the radar. I wonder if the limitation placed on gatherings by the context where they live was removed how the church would naturally progress. Would the smaller house churches come together and create more traditional church meetings with Sunday school and organized worship teams? Would they maintain intentional small group meetings for community or stay within the confines of the house meeting? What different philosophies of ministry do we have based on our context?

I know in Thailand, the churches that meet in the center of Bangkok have done a lot of house church gatherings with a once-a-month meeting at rotating locations based merely on the high cost of rent downtown. If money didn’t matter, and freedom to worship was available, how would we choose to gather, and what would be the best way to gather?

A Letter From Haiti

Chris Sahlman has been a friend of ours for a long time. When we saw him last summer, all he could talk about was how excited he was to be going to Haiti. His home church, The Journey, just sent a team with him as he moved to Jacmel, Haiti 11 days ago. The team from The Journey left Haiti only hours before the earthquake shook Haiti to it’s core. Click here to see a video about their experience.

Here is a copy of a letter by Chris from Matt Messner’s blog.

My experience has been overwhelming here in Haiti after the quake. I moved down to Haiti 11 days before the quake with my friends from the Journey Community and other churches. They left one day before the quake. I just wanted to take a quick nap… 45 minutes later my whole trip and life was changed forever.

I thought my whole house was going to fall down on me, when I was running to get out of it. Once I was outside I could here screaming for all directions. I was thinking to myself “did this really just happen?!?!”

I end up sitting on the side of the road for three hours watching people walk out of downtown Jacmel. Where I live is about 5 to 7 miles from there. It was dark, there was no power, and people were screaming and crying. I just sat there and prayed. I waited there and finally two of my friends (Nego & Ellen) found me and took me to another missionary house that had a generator going with internet access. I called Steve right away on Skype. Told him I was fine and that I was able to call Wakendy at the orphanage. When I called Wakendy is when I learned that the orphanage was broken, but the kids were all ok, but scared.

I tried to get to them that night, but it was dark already and the people was with advised me that it was not safe to go. “Wait until morning,” they said.

That night I got about 2 hours of sleep. There were aftershocks about every 30 to 45 minutes that night. The next morning I found my roommate Amos. He was in Port au Prince the day of the earthquake to take his wife to the airport. Her plane took off one and half hours before the quake hit. Amos was on a mountain on his way back to Jacmel when the quake hit. Because of rock slides, he had to walk the rest of the way down the mountain to make it back to Jacmel. It took him about 7 hours to walk back.

So, I met up with Amos at the place I was staying. Him, I, and a group of about 5 others went to the Orphanage to see the damage. I was glad to see all the kids were alive and okay, but was heartbroken when I saw the damage to the building. I kept saying, “Where are they going to live now.” I gave some money to one of the family members that help oversee the orphanage to go get supplies that were most needed. Then, I went back to the place I was staying to get on the internet to update Steve on want was happening.

The kids are doing great. I think the older kids understand alot more of what is going on. The kids are mostly playing and just being kids. There is at least one kid that got hurt during the quake. She hurt her foot when some bricks from the building fell on it. There are also a couple of kids that are sick with high fevers. I had a person go into town to find some medicine, but had no luck. The pastor who oversees the orphanage was working on building a small room outside to store the food in. The orphanage has enough food right now. There are over 50 bags of rice and about 5 bags of beans for the kids to eat. There is water, but I don’t know how much as of right now. We are working on knocking the rest of the building down in the next couple of days. Then we will start rebuilding from there!

There is not a lot of assistance right now in Jacmel. I know the WFP stopped by and gave the orphanage some food after the quake. The UN had set up a relief camp at the airport, but as of today have ran out of supplies so they closed it down. The road to Port Au Price is closed, blocked by landslides. Word of mouth is that it will take about two weeks to reopen the road. There was a gas station open today in Jacmel and everyone rushed it to get gas for their cars and Moto’s. That made for a crazy time trying to get to the orphanage today.
Driving through downtown Jacmel you can start to smell death in the air. There are still a lot of people trapped in buildings that have fallen. There is not a lot of help for rescuing them. I did see people pull a lady out of a building alive on Wednesday. With the road being block there is not much hope for the people that are still trapped. Also word of mouth is that the death toll in Jacmel could be 500 – 1000 people. Obviously, please continue to pray for all of us here in Jacmel. God bless.

If you want to donate to help rebuild this orphanage you can send a check to “the journey” with “Haiti relief” on the memo line – mail it to: p.o. box 44092, madison, wi, 53744.