Falling in love with Thailand (a story from 6 years ago)

This is reposted from our latest newsletter and gives the story when God first connected my heart with Thailand.

In the late fall of 2004, we were scouting Bangkok, Thailand as a potential place to serve overseas and see God’s call to mission accomplished in our life. We wanted to know what the city would be like, the food, the transportation and meet the people we would serve with. We enjoyed the food, city and bustle of life; acknowledged the heat we needed to become accustomed to; and learned to navigate the transportation. We even took a water taxi, which should be called a water boat the way people jam into the narrow and long wooden boat that motors up and down the rivers and canals. In Thailand, as with many other cultures, there is always “room for one more”, so we would squeeze to the side and squish to allow another passenger. The Thais riding with us always look on with curiosity when we ride the boat as the foreigners rarely take this working class form of transportation.

Toward the end of our brief visit, we took the boat across town to visit the center where Our Home Chapel meets and the English School holds classes. We wanted to meet Kelly and Angie Hilderbrand, the senior missionaries and founder of the Foursquare church in Bangkok, and see the ministry center. Andy had ridden the boat several times, but in no way was he used to getting in and out of the low level boat. The step down from the dock to the boat changes depending on the location of the pier. Sometimes the step is shallow and other times the step is steep; uniformity does not describe the way things are built in Bangkok. Each time, Andy grabbed tight to the rope that ran along the tarp roof of the boat. And looked to step into the boat cautiously not to step on other passengers. Then he could find his way to a seat. To increase the difficulty of getting onto the boat, or maybe it is to speed things along for efficiency; the boats never fully stop at the dock. They just keep floating through as everyone jumps in and out.

When we were getting off near Our Home Center, Tina and her father grabbed Andy’s arms to hoist him easily out of the boat and onto the dock. They were pulling him up while all the Thai people looked on with eyes wide open.  They wondered how this would work and wished they could help in some way, but since we didn’t speak Thai they couldn’t help us. They kept watching with their eyes fixed on the scene of Andy being pulled onto the dock by two people not familiar with the moving boat. As the boat slowly floated through the stop, they pulled him up and onto the dock not realizing they now were right next to one of the posts on the pier. Andy came up smack into that post, head on.

At that moment, all the bystanders gasped. Their hearts went out to the foreigner with a bump on his head reminding him of the trip that morning. Andy made believe he was okay, shook his head, and walked it off. They went on to see the ministry center. However, something in that process settled in Andy’s heart. He could have easily said this country would be too hard to live in. He could have allowed this to be an easy excuse to go home and never come back. Instead, he resolved to learn from this mistake and not allow a knock on the head to stop him. When he remembers that incident, all he remembers now is how the Thai people wished to help so much. They cared for a perfect stranger. Our hearts inseparably connected with the Thai people in that moment.

The Story of a Conversion

The story of a conversion looks different in every context. Even as we look at Jesus’ model, we see people coming to him in various ways. Paul went throughout the Roman Empire becoming all things to all people that some might come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We see different approaches even in the same place. In Philipi, he finds Lydia along the water’s edge dying clothe. He shares Jesus with her. Later, after he was thrown in prison, the jailer comes to know Jesus after a crazy earthquake rocks the doors and shackles loose. The prisoner nearly took his own life knowing he would die for allowing the prisoners to get free, when Paul shouted t o him to stop. He said, we are all here.

In Thailand,  the story of someone coming to know Jesus looks different than in most places. The worldview of a Thai Buddhist tells them that they are born as the person they will always be. If they are rich or poor, smart or dim, diligent or lazy at birth that is who they will always be. There is no use changing it, because they are born into the life they will live. Take that one step farther, and you get the idea to be Thai is to be Buddhist. Therefore, Thai people are very religious and accepting of other religious people, but to change and become another religion takes a lot of effort. Often, a Thai person will meet some Christians, show interest, visit the church services, watch the Christians for a number of months while asking questions, and continue investigating truth. At some point along their journey, they encounter God as real in their life. After believing God is real, a Thai person might still wait a short while to build the courage to have God become the Lord of their life. They want to be ready to face the questions and even persecution from their own family for changing. Their family rarely understands. They think they are rejecting the core values of being Thai and adopting foreign values.

One Thai person we began spending a lot of time with just before our furlough accepted Christ last week after a Friday night service. He met us at Ramkhamhaeng University where we hold English Clinic as an outreach to the students. We started hanging out and building friendship with him by going to the movies and out to dinner several times with him. He then came to the English Camp, the annual major outreach for Our Home Chapel here in Bangkok. After being around the church for some time and watching the Christians, he decided to know God. I loved what he said in reply to  our facebook status update. We said how glad we were that two new people are now part of the family of God. He commented back saying, ‘It was because I saw God in you guys. Thank you.” The second person that night was his sister who he brought to the English Camp.

The journey to faith for people who know nothing of God and rarely see their friends change from being Buddhist takes time and relationship. Everytime we see someone come to know God, we are equally thrilled.

It’s the Rain’s Fault

A week ago, I walked in to talk with a young woman at the church building. She has a shop there, so I stopped by to say hi. She was lying on the couch taking a nap. I figured it was an after-lunch type of nap and tried to quietly close the door and leave. In doing that, I woke her up. After apologizing for waking her up, she told me that she didn’t feel well. The reason she gave for feeling under the weather was exactly that, the weather. She told me that the previous day she had opened her balcony door while it was raining to bring the cool air inside. It was a windy morning and apparently some of the rain had blown onto her hair. It is a common belief in Thailand that getting rainwater on one’s head will make you sick.

Now the weather has been changing of late. It goes from blistering hot and humid to rainy and windy. This constantly changing weather does bring sickness to more people, but it isn’t the rain on one’s hair that does it.

What started with one person being sick has now spread throughout many in the church. The main reason for this is that Thais do not fully understand how germs work, along with their outlook that whatever is meant to happen will happen. This translates to sick people still doing and touching everything, like they were healthy. They are cooking in the kitchen at the café, working in public places, and generally going about daily life as if they were well. Most of the sick people have felt sick enough to go to the doctor and get medicine, but not cognizant of washing their hands extra with soap. All this has led me to catch the cold that everyone else has right now, even though I tried to wash my hands extra.

Daniel Brown

One of our favorite recurring guests to Thailand, Daniel Brown, came through this week. When Daniel visits Thailand, he will spend a few days speaking to the leaders of the church about principles for discipling people, strategies for leading the church, and how to hear God’s voice. This time, Daniel spent a large portion of his time pressing us to fully know how much God loves us.

He said, Jesus did not come to tell us how bad we are. He came to reconnect us to God. Sometimes we, leaders in the church, decide to love people, because we are supposed to. We love on cue. What we need to do is love people out of the abundance of our knowledge and experience of God’s love toward us.

He spent several days with the leaders of the church, but most of what he taught revolved around knowing God’s love and being engaged to know and love God.

I was excited to spend an afternoon at lunch in dialogue with him about discipleship principles. Daniel is one of the best Foursquare has to offer on the subject of discipleship. I am not sure why we don’t have more people focused on making disciples, but we could use more people who pour their time and energy into reproducing people who follow Jesus like they do.

Dating Thai Style

Thai dating practices differ greatly from western dating. The first difference, often most difficult to grasp, starts with the length of time in which a guy and girl will hang out or date before becoming serious. In Thailand, they like to call the first stage looking at each other. We would call this courting or group dating. They just want to see how their personalities mesh. They want to move slow and cautious, not to let their emotions have the best of them. They want to get past the surface level before deciding on a more significant relationship, such as boyfriend and girlfriend. Once they are official, they will date for 2-5 years before marrying.

The other night we were talking with two single friends and hearing their thoughts on dating as they asked us how dating in the US differs. Keep in mind as this story unfolds, the guy and girl are both college graduates and young professionals in their early to mid 20’s.

We talked together about what a foreigner looks for in a girl or guy they would want to date and eventually marry. We talked about qualities that are admirable in a guy or girl for these friends of ours. We simply had a great time talking together.

However, at one point, we thought they were joking around when talking about how you know someone really likes you. You know, we all have those tests to see if that person really likes us for who we are. In the States, most people frown upon them once they have graduated high school, though. They said, you know when someone likes you for sure if they don’t run away when you fart or burp. If you are reading this and are not familiar with Thai culture, you will miss the fact they are more polite in public than any American by far. They never fart or burp in a public setting. If someone does, and I am not saying I have, they will tease you mercilessly.

Therefore, if you feel like someone likes you, and they have Thai culture in their background, you will know they really like you if they start farting and belching around you. On the other hand, you can test their affection by passing some gas inconspicuously, or after taking a big sip of Coke, letting the air out of your belly. You will know if they stick around, they are really interested in dating you. I don’t know if this would go over well in western culture. Usually, we wait until we are married to feel free to toot and burp.

Traditional Thai Wedding Part 2

Earlier this week, I gave observations on a Thai wedding, focusing on the processional the groom made to arrive at the house of his bride. In this post, I will give my observations of the intimate ceremony with the family. In a Thai ceremony, which varies depending on which region of Thailand you are from, the only people who attend the actual equivalent to a wedding ceremony are family members or representatives of the bride and groom. Representatives in this case would be the same as the wedding party in a Western Wedding. In the north of Thailand, this ceremony is called the wrist tying ceremony. In Central Thailand, the ceremony is called the water pouring ceremony. These names refer to the part of the ceremony where blessing is spoken over the new married couple. We’ll get to that part shortly.

At the wedding we attended, the groom entered the house after paying his way in and through the different levels to access his bride. The levels are usually a wood level (the entrance gate to the house), a silver level, and a gold level all requiring a particular payment. The groom and bride then sat behind a table to await a blessing. Usually the blessing is chanted by a monk, but in this case the bride’s uncle played the part. He chanted a traditional blessing out of a notebook reading along as he went. Sitting and watching, I got the sense of rich tradition as well as long held beliefs about the sacred nature of a marriage. I wondered what spiritual elements were included in this type of blessing.

When the chanting concluded, the groom approached the parents of the bride to offer the bulk of his bride price. When they accepted the payment, the couple both bowed before her parents. Then the groom turned to his bride and gave her the jewelry portion of the bride price. He placed a necklace around her neck, a bracelet on her wrist and finally slid a ring on her finger. She reciprocated and slid a ring onto his finger. The uncle followed this by putting a wreath on each of their heads that had a string connecting the wreaths.

At this point, each member of the family came forward to tie a string around the wrist of each the bride and groom, the name of the ceremony. As they tie the string, they pronounce a blessing over the newlywed couple. Tying the string signifies the tying on of a blessing. After each person that holds significance in the couple’s life comes through and blesses them, the couple goes into the bedroom for the final part of the wedding ceremony.

In the bedroom, the parents explain to them the things that a married couple needs to value and soon consummate now that they are a married couple. The parents then show the newly married couple how to lay on the bed, and then make the embarrassed couple lay down together. It is hard to think of this as an outdated ritual since most young adults have heard about sex long before this point. However, I found it an interesting part of how traditional Thai families honor the intimate nature of a marriage.

After the ceremony with close family and friends concluded, the party began. The family of the bride provided lots of food and entertainment. The bride’s sister took advantage of the karaoke stage to sing and dance for all the friends who came to revel in the wedding and reception festivities. The bride and groom even sang a duet. I have to say my first experience at a traditional Thai wedding was fun.

Thai Mother’s Day

One of the biggest holidays in Thailand, Mother’s Day, comes every August 12, or at least has come that way for the past several decades in commemoration of her majesty the Queen’s birthday. Once again, this year, the Thai people went to the streets with their families to celebrate the birthday of the Queen who represents all mothers for the nation. One fun fact we learned while out at the zoo visiting the animals with nearly every other family in Bangkok (maybe a slight exaggeration), was that mother’s get into the movies for free on this day. Thailand goes out of its way to make mother’s feel special on this holiday, even making it easy for a mother to take her children to the movies.

On this day, most children, including young adults, give their mom a jasmine flower wreath. Many include a greeting card that expresses their love and adoration toward their precious mother. Thai children have a special bond with their mother. It is hard to explain the subtle nuance between a Thai child and their mother and a western child and their mother, but it is fun to observe how reverent the child is while cherishing everything the mom did in raising them.  I am not saying one culture is better than the other, just different.

After the families, many of whom enjoy the parks and picnic areas, return home, many of the Thai people go back out for the evening in which there are fireworks throughout the city honoring her majesty the queen as well as other ceremonies and festivities near the grand palace and suan luang.