Thailand Protests: Helplessness Leads to True Hope

Hopelessness often leads to talking about real hope. The political turmoil in Bangkok has shaken Thai people out of a comfort they have lived with for generations. When the global economy tanked in late 2008, the yellow-shirts were working hard to protest and throw out the elected party. The protest ramped up to closing down the Bangkok airport for a week and causing many to reconsider their allegiance with the yellow shirts after seeing Thailand lose a lot of business and tourism.

Since then, the political fight has gone back-and-forth with each side protesting the other and protesters protesting the protesters. Red-shirts support the former Prime Minister, Thaksin and his ideology for a government. Yellow-shirts support the constitutional monarchy, the government as it has been. Now, a group of multi-colored shirts from the business district basically oppose the red-shirts with their acronym on Twitter being ABR (Anything But Red).

Thai people feel the situation is hopeless. When one-side takes power, the other side will fight indefinitely until they can regain power. Round-and-round they go on this unending political merry-go-round. They have lost hope in the stability, provision and protection of their government.

We noticed in the past 15 months that Thai people have become much more receptive to the message of Jesus, so we asked the local Thai pastor at the church we serve, Our Home Chapel, what he thinks. He said that the Thai Christians can talk to their friends about what true hope is. They can talk to them about Jesus as their friends have lost hope in a good job, the economy, a government that takes care of the people and the comfortable life they have lived. I always have said when life is uncertain; people will gravitate toward something certain sure. But in talking with the pastor, I received an insight into the specifics of what the Thai people have lost in these uncertain times. We see the current time as a window of opportunity for the kingdom of God to bring light into a dark situation. I don’t mean to be glib or make this out as an easy moment, but I see an opportunity to be seized.

We have seen many more people asking questions around the church, and many of the deciding to walk with Jesus. Baptisms are more frequent. Thai people are looking for something to hold onto as chaos has unsettled their foundation. Often, difficult circumstances lead people to find a solution or something different…and they find Jesus.

Keep praying that God will make himself known in this time and bring peace to the situation. Pray for no more violence.

Tension Remains High in Bangkok

Tensions in Thailand remain high as anti-government protesters maintain their call for parliament to dissolve. Six weeks of protests have left Bangkok mired in political unrest. Three clashes that led to violence have been called isolated incidents as neither side wants to see anyone hurt. The longer the protest drags on, the harder it will be to keep it that way.

The Red-shirts supporting the former Prime Minister, Thaksin and his call for reform have camped out downtown near one of the business districts. They have closed down the fanciest mall in Bangkok and some other surrounding shopping centers.

Here is a funny political cartoon about the protesters.

Two incidents that had grenades launched into the soldiers the first time and innocent Sky Train riders the second time have been rumored to be initiated by a third party. A third incident happened yesterday as security forces clashed with protesters on the northern edge of Bangkok. Rubber bullets were shot wounding a handful of people and one soldier was shot by a stray bullet from a police officer, killing him.

As the turmoil ebbs and flows in the heart of Bangkok, the Bangkokians are growing board of the fight. Many have stopped reading the news, and now wish to avoid talking about politics. The first few weeks everyone gave their opinion as the politics were quite interesting.  Now they just want it to go away, and they oppose everyone, unless they hold strongly to one of the sides.

Before this government was in power, the red-shirts allies held office. Their prime minister received protests from the yellow-shirts to the point of closing down the international airport, a hub of travel and import/export for the region.

We avoid discussing political issues and more than that getting close to where the protests are taking place. Every now and again we will see red-shirts or soldiers pass by where we live. We are staying informed and alert to keep safe.

Experienced Based Theology II

I have continued to think about the topic of Experienced based Theology. Here are some thought and examples from books that speak on the same idea.

As we work in Thailand, we have seen different views of God and religion. As people come into the church, they need to know how to judge experience and line it up with Theology and when experience can tweak their theology. Here is a great section on experienced based Theology from Paul Hiebert’s book, Understanding Folk Religions.

Folk religions are existential and experience-based. The result is a pragmatic concern for power rather than truth. Different methods are tried simultaneously to solve human dilemmas, with little concern that these often contradict one another. In such settings it is easy for Christians to base their theology on experience. The test of truth is success. The sign of spiritual life and vital worship is feelings of excitement, health, and prosperity. As Jonathan Edwards pointed out, experiences are not self-authenticating. They must themselves be tested for their reality and cause. Christians need to avoid reading their experiences and theologies into Scripture and focusing on these rather than on Scripture itself. Chapter 14, page 21

Pulling further from Hiebert’s thoughts on Edwards model of experience, here is Edwards grid.

Jonathan Edwards was involved in a great revival in which there were many experiences, both positive and negative. In the process he developed a number of criteria for discerning the work of God.

•    great religious experiences in themselves.
•    religious experiences that have a great effect on the body.
•    fluent, fervent, and abundant spiritual speaking.
•    experiences beyond a person’s control.
•    religious experiences that bring texts of Scripture to mind.
•    the appearance of love in a religious experience.
•    multiplied religious experiences, accompanying one another.
•    religious experiences that bring joy followed by conviction.
•    spiritual experiences that lead a person to spend much time in religious activities and zealous participation in public worship.
•    experiences that cause men and women to praise and glorify God with their mouths.
•    religious experiences that produce confidence of being in a good spiritual state.
•    religious experiences that are outwardly pleasing and acceptable to the truly godly.
•    true believers exhibit divine affections.
•    they love divine things—the ground for gracious   affections.
•    they have an appreciation for the loveliness of moral excellence of divine things, a deep sense of personal sin, and a longing for holiness.
•    they do not downplay godly rationality—the sense of the heart.
•    they have a spiritual conviction of the reality and certainty of divine things.
•    they have a humility that is spiritual and thoroughly godly.
•    in them spiritual discoveries alter the very nature of their soul; their lives are transformed into Christ’s likeness.
•    they have a spirit of gentleness that leads to a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy.
•    they have gracious affections that soften the heart followed with a Christian tenderness of spirit.
•    there is a symmetry, proportion and balance in their lives.
•    they strive for spiritual attainment, whereas false ones rest assured in themselves and their achievements.
•    their conduct demonstrates the outward evidence of the inward changes that have taken place.
(Edwards 1959)

Experienced Based Theology

Experience shapes how we view the world. On the other hand, belief shapes our values which in turn shapes our behavior, or in other words our customs and practices. I have been thinking a lot about at the balancing act of matching experiences with beliefs when shaping our Theology. Keeping in mind that Theology is the study of God, what holds more value to shaping our view of God and our place in his creation, experience or formalized teachings?

First of all, experience can be dangerous as we tend to be swayed easily depending on our mood or the context of the experience. A mob can be whipped into a frenzy and do things that they would ordinarily not do. We call that mob mentality. One could walk away from that experience with a tainted view of what happened and why. In Thailand, the mob mentality shows up so much in the current political climate. Each side holds more firmly to their position as they hear news and see the situation from their perspective. They have an experience that shapes their reality. As things escalate, they hold to their opinion stronger with the fringe wondering how did we get to this place.

Secondly, we can see a plethora of examples where our senses might lead us astray. I enjoy the watching TV show Numbers. One thing that sticks out is when Charlie, the mathematician, won’t let the FBI use a line up to find their witness. The reasoning is that a person will select one of the people, even if the guilty person is not there. They use their feelings that the police caught the person to choose the most likely person, even if they are not sure. This makes the process of a witness picking the criminal out of a police lineup flawed.

We see this in a church, when a service brings an emotional high. We feel the tingles of heightened awareness. Sometimes the goose bumps are an indication of an intimate encounter with God. Other times, the music, lights and energy of the service create false impressions for us to walk away with. It may not be a negative, just not necessarily a move of God. The excesses of the charismatic tend to make others wonder what is genuinely from God and what is man-made exuberance, i.e. barking like animals, hilarious laughter, being slain in the spirit and so on.

However, scripture talks about what Jesus taught to be taught to others, Matt 28:18-19. Paul tells Timothy to entrust what he was taught into men who can pass the teaching on to others, II Tim 2:2. In Me Corinthians 11:1-3, Paul encourages the church for holding onto the teachings, just as I passed them onto you. Experience will give new insight to our Theology and speak into it; there is a basis for what we know. That comes from what Jesus taught and what Paul taught founded throughout the whole of scripture.

Yet, we cannot dismiss experience completely. Our experience determines our perception of reality, lower case r. We need to learn how to judge our experiences. Our experience should enrich our theology not frame our theology. At times our experience will shift our theology.

The book of Acts gives us many examples where the disciples adjusted their theology. I am reminded of the story when Peter encounters Cornelius. Without experiencing God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and the Gentiles in Acts 10, he could never have argued for their inclusion into the community of faith. Peter fought the other apostles, saying they freely received from God what we received. The book of Acts is an ongoing adjustment of the apostles Theology. Jesus told them to go to Samaria and the ends of the earth, but it was not until persecution pressed them into Samaria that they started to take the gospel across cultural barriers. They saw the church as a homogeneous body. God saw the church as diverse and full of color, pardon the expression.

I raise these questions, because we as thinking people are constantly reevaluating our beliefs as life teaches us through mentors, experience and study. We need to have a grid to judge our experience. We need to know how to line up what we see with scripture and let God’s word define what we are experiencing.

I know some people that have begun to swing drastically from what others believe based heavily on experience. They come from a place and context where something worked for them when a previous Theology didn’t work. They read their experience into scripture. Subsequently, they proceed to create a Theology to explain their experience. They may have a powerful testimony that helps people. Their experience can give hope to others that God can bring them out of a place of misery, or use them in a way to touch others. Prudence should be the way to go when using our experience to reconstruct our Theology.

We need to use scripture to speak into our experiences and rely on the community of faith to give safe boundaries to our questions and attempts at understanding God and his working.

What experiences changed the way you viewed scripture or Theology. What changes have taken place in your life? Where have you seen people take experience out of balance?

He Likes Cheese

We went out to lunch this week with the pastor that we work with at Our Home Chapel. We had a great time sharing life together. On our way to lunch, we had to pass the evil guard dog at the church building, Boonkee. I say this because he has bitten multiple people, Thais and foreigners alike. The Thais who were bitten have tried to not tell too many people so that Boonkee won’t be gotten rid of. This dog looks very sweet, waves his tail, but has bitten people while they were petting him.

That being said, Boonkee particularly dislikes white foreigners. Every time any of us walk up to the dog, he growls and tries to attack us. It is a good thing he is always on a leash. I try to be nice to the dog from a distance (I’m a dog lover, really…this is the first dog that I have ever not liked) but he just doesn’t like me…I am not quite sure why.

As we were getting into the car to go to lunch, Boonkee snarled at me, like he always does. So the pastor’s wife shortened the chain so that I could walk by and get into the car. I then said, “I’m not sure why, but that dog hates me and I don’t know what to do to make him like me.” She replied, “That’s because Boonkee likes cheese.”

He likes cheese. I pondered this for a moment as I have never seen a dog who liked to eat cheese. It also seemed odd for a Thai dog to “like cheese” as Thais don’t like cheese so why would they be feeding it to him.

She must have seen my slightly confused look because she quickly added, “He wants to eat cheese…and he smells it right now.”

It all clicked in my head at that moment. Thai people joke that Americans smell like cheese. The food you eat changes the way to smell. Don’t believe me? Smell your skin. Eat food from only one particular place, let’s say Thailand, for two weeks and then smell your skin again. You will notice a different smell on your skin.

Thais don’t like cheese. Well they don’t really like milk or any dairy, but especially cheese. Americans love cheese and dairy. We consume it all the time. It’s one of the things that I really miss living in Thailand. Cheese is expensive here so we don’t eat it very often, unless it is on pizza. I’m not alone in my longings for good cheese, most Americans who live in Thailand also crave cheese. So, go open your refridgerator and smell the mildest cheese there. That’s what Thais think we smell like.

I definitely don’t smell like cheese anymore, as we mostly eat Thai food. There must be another reason that Boonkee hates me and other foreigners so much…if only I knew what it was.

A Chance to be American

Thailand is very different than the United States. Some people have told me that Thailand is the most exotic place they have ever been to. That just shows how different the two countries are. Some of that is cultural, and some of it is in the fact that Thailand is a developing country.

There are things that I love about Thailand, and things that I tolerate because I have to. I love the food, the non-spicy forms of it, the kind and friendly people, and the beautiful scenery. I tolerate the hot and humid weather, being far away from our families, and other minor things. I can’t change the weather or being away from our families because God has placed us here for now.

It’s the little things that I don’t even realize I miss until I get to enjoy them. Andy and I try to take mini-retreats every so often. Usually at our birthdays, anniversary, and other 3-day weekends where we have nothing going on, which is almost never.

During these getaways we go to tourist areas and act like American tourists with the freedom to be inconspicuous. We step away from the culture that we are trying to be a part of so well on a daily basis to have space to let go a little bit. It is hard to explain, but as missionaries we live under a microscope. We work hard to be culturally sensitive to the people we serve, not offending with a wrong gesture or rude tone. We enjoy the spaces where no one knows who we are, not to do anything inappropriate, but just be ourselves and hold hands.

It is intensely hot right now in Thailand, but I wear capris and short-sleeved shirts everyday increasing the sweat quotient. This is the norm, expect for teenagers who are pushing the cultural envelope. When we are away, I get to wear shorts and t-shirts, cute sundresses, and even a bikini. This is refreshing because when we go swimming with the Thais, I have to wear a one-piece bathing suit with board shorts. We also walk hand in hand and sometimes sneak a quick kiss on the cheek. All of this is unheard of in Bangkok as Thais generally show very little affection in public.

Last summer, when the Thai pastor at Our Home Chapel and his wife went to America for the Foursquare Convention, his wife told him she was looking forward to going to America, because they could hold hands in public.

It’s amazing how acting like we would naturally act in the United States is so refreshing. After a few days away, I feel rejuvenated and ready to step back into life with the Thai customs and culture including all the little things that I must do to live and serve in Bangkok. It’s not that Thai culture is difficult, just different, and when we live everyday in a different way than we are used to with our worldview and culture, we need little chances to be American.

Journey to a Waterfall

I love Thai people. Here is just another reason to love them. As we have seen in some past posts, Thai people are some of the most caring and friendly people in the world. Their heart longs to serve those with any need. They will carry the bags of an elderly person and not think twice about it. They will grab a chair for you as you wait at their store or place of business. They would hate seeing anyone uncomfortable or put out unnecessarily.

This weekend, Christina and I took the extra days after Songkran (The Thai New Year) as a getaway and spiritual retreat on Koh Chang, a beautiful island between Thailand and Cambodia.

Our first outing of the weekend took us to the waterfall on the island. The waterfall was hidden in the hills and jungle, that lay a 700 meter hike over hills and rocks. As we closed in on our destination, one of the national parks’ workers ran up to me and grabbed my arm to help me descend to the bottom of the fall. He led precisely the best route for me to get into the water. As we walked together, he kept remarking how good I was at walking over the uneven ground. I thanked him for his help and swam around in the cool, refreshing water that pooled at the bottom of the fall.

When our time to return arrived, we gathered our belongings and turned to leave. Our new friend and helper wasn’t present anymore as he had helped a tourist who injured himself climbing the slippery rocks out from the waterfall. However, as he was coming back, he saw us and quickly ran to grab me again and aid me out of the rocky path. He knew exactly which ways to turn and traverse the trail, and his amazement grew as I steadily walked up and over the different rocks and tree roots. As one of his friends passed going the other way, he told them how excellent I was at walking. He didn’t realize my excellence was due in large part to his assistance, as it had taken Christina and I considerably longer to walk to the falls. Another co-worker passed and he again expressed his wonder.  When it was time to let me go at the beginning of the trail, he couldn’t stop himself from trying to tell me how great it was to watch me hike the trail he works and lives with every day. He motioned to me and then pounded his heart with a fist symbolizing how I would remain in his heart. As I began to walk away he called me one more time and gave the thumbs up sign.

I will as I often do remain in his heart as a vivid picture of overcoming adversity. Yet, he will remain in my heart as someone demonstrating service and care to their fellow human being. Service displayed not out of obligation but a genuine heart of kindness.

At times, I have found this character trait quite appealing as I have seen servant-hood bestowed on me. At other times, this character trait can be frustrating. A person will give up their seat for me on the bus, even if I want to stand and stretch my legs after sitting for a long time. Or when I take a slight misstep, they will grab my hand and forcefully lead me to safe ground, even if it was only a little wobble and I was fine walking on my own. I will take the frustrating parts in stride as I can see and appreciate the servant-heartedness of the Thai people, as shown in this story.

How can we find a practical way to care for our neighbor? What small act of kindness can we do to demonstrate God’s loving care for them? How can we shine as a light by our good deeds?