Learning Thai is Worth It

We have a new fruit vendor on our little street. She is a sweet old woman who comes in and preps the fruit to sell early every morning. By the afternoon she has sold out her daily supply and goes back home. One of the first few days she came, she brought along her college-aged daughter to help. Since I love fruit, I stop often to buy freshly cut fruit from the street vendors in Bangkok, especially the one on our street.

Fruit was actually my starting point for learning Thai. When we first moved to Bangkok, I would walk by the fruit vendor with Andy and our Thai tutor and buy some fruit. I wanted to be able to buy it by myself, so every day I would learn the name of a new fruit and how to order it. This amused the fruit vendor we had at that time, and he loved to trick me by talking back to me in a different dialect. I was often the start of a joke, but didn’t mind as long as I could get what I wanted without any help.

Fast forward to today and my shopping and conversing skills are quite good in Thai, but new vendors don’t know that. As I went to order the fruit that I wanted, the daughter stepped forward to help me. The older fruit vendor can’t speak any English, not even the names of the fruits, so her daughter wanted to make sure that I got what I wanted without any trouble. This girl’s English isn’t good either, but she can help her mom and ask basic questions in English.

(The following conversation is carried out in Thai)

I order my fruit (usually cantaloupe, watermelon, guava, or pineapple) and wait patiently for the woman to cut it up for me. The daughter (starting to speak in English, but switching to Thai as I answer her in Thai) asks where I work, why I am on this little street, about my baby, and finally wow, why are you learning Thai so well.

Being that this is the first time meeting this family, I don’t want to get all spiritual in my response to why I am learning Thai (I have already said that I work at the church and teach English there). I decide to go with a much more practical answer, I want to be able to talk and really communicate with all Thai people. This really impressed the girl. She felt that she could talk with me in broken English if she wanted, but she realized that I cared about all Thai people, not just the younger generation. I wanted to be able to talk with people like her mom, an easily overlooked generation in a rapidly changing Thailand. This brought huge smiles to both the girl’s and old woman’s face.

Now, every time I stop to buy fruit on our street, the older woman converses with me instead of shying away from any conversation. It’s experiences like these that make all the hard work of learning Thai worth it.

When Christmas is Overlooked

Here is a story that I have to tell of God reaching in to change the lives of so many who have lost their holiday of Christmas. An outreach held on Christmas for the Burmese church in Bangkok saw dozens come to know God and his love for them.

How would we respond if our beloved holiday of Christmas no longer occurred? That is precisely what many of the Burmese who immigrated to Bangkok looking for work or fleeing oppressive governments, a terrible economic climate, and ethnic cleansing in the Karen State have to deal with. In Burma Christmas is a national holiday, but in Thailand where they now reside and work, Christmas goes by as any ordinary day.

The Burmese working in the factory worked their long days like they do 6-days every week. Yet they are thankful to have these jobs compared to the lack of good work available in their homeland. To Westerner idealists the harsh conditions  of the factories cry out for them to be shut down, but for those less fortunate and definitely without the time and energy to be idealistic, these factory jobs are cherished. The workers risk being deported back to Myanmar among other problems in finding their way across the border to get these jobs. They are able to support their families and send financial help back home, to a place where author Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) writes in her recent book everything is broken http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2010/12/23/a-burmese-christmas-a-last-minute-gift-recommendation

Myanmar, the place they call home, has little to offer them outside culture and traditions and families left behind.

On this Christmas in 2010, the Burmese congregation with many of their members working in the factory wanted to throw a Christmas party for their friends and co-workers for a taste of home. They could invite them to sing Burmese Christmas songs which are Burmese in origin. Usually when we are singing Christmas songs with those in Thailand we recognize the melody and learn the song in Thai. The Burmese have many of their own individual songs.

The church provided a big spread of Burmese food for the workers. They offered two sessions for this Christmas party held in an outdoor community center. They held the first party for the nightshift workers when they finished working at 8 am, and the second session at the lunch break for those working the day-shift.

Between the two parties about 150 people came to celebrate Christmas amidst the long work week when Christmas fell in Thailand.

I don’t mean to bury the lead, but with this celebration around 70 people accepted Jesus after hearing the Christmas story. It was amazing to me as I preached the message during the lunch party, thinking this feels nothing like Christmas outside some Christmas music as we are sweating in 93+ degree heat…but to the Burmese people the day was special more than words could describe. The Burmese pastors were more than thrilled and searched for the words to express what God did that day as he drew so many to know him in the middle of a work week as they celebrated a lost holiday while living in a foreign land.

What would we do if Christmas disappeared? How would we maintain our identity and hold to our special days that help remind us of who we are as a people?

As you reflect on a wonderful Christmas this year, keep those in Myanmar and those from Myanmar in your prayers…they need God’s hand of grace more than you can know…

The Story of Christmas

The Christmas story evokes so many emotions and thoughts as we ponder the idea of God becoming one of us. As we are three months away from having our first daughter, I pause continually to think of how God allowed himself to become like us through the process of becoming an infant. He entered the world the same as all of us in order to bring salvation to all who want to return to God.

The Christmas story is rich with God acting and moving on our behalf, but one thing I noticed this year is how God announced his story to all people. He was not a respecter of persons when it came to telling the good news that a savior is born in Bethlehem. When I stopped to think on the Christmas narrative this year, I noticed the people that the gospel writers highlighted to show who God chose to share the incredible message of Christmas with.

1.       The first people we see in Luke 2 that heard something amazing happened were shepherds in the fields. The angel appeared in the night sky to proclaim the good news, and those who heard were the working class of society. These people were not the educated elite, or people of renowned, but unspectacular fellows making it day-to-day by watching someone else’s animals. Upon hearing the good news of great joy, these shepherds rushed to find Jesus without stopping to clean up. Still carrying the smell of sheep and dirty fields, the shepherds discovered the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger just as the angels said. They returned to their work celebrating what they saw and glorifying God.

2.       Next, we see God using the heavens to proclaim his story to the Magi, a people we know little about. Likely they came from Persia following a star or rare convergence of planets telling them that something earthshattering was happening in Jerusalem. Here God gave his message to the learned of society, those who sought knowledge and truth. Through the star in the sky, God proclaimed Jesus’ birth to everyone in the world if they were looking at the sky and interpreting the signs. They found the one who encompassed all truth when they arrived in Bethlehem baring gifts.

3.       The wise men crossed paths with a third kind of person God, royalty and the Jewish religious leaders who were told that he now entered the world as king. The wise men came to King Herod asking for directions to the newborn king. Herod, surprised by the foreign visitors, asked his scribes to verify what the Magi said. They found in the ancient writings of the prophets that a king would be born in Bethlehem as the wise men thought. Herod did not respond like the first two groups of men. Wishing to eliminate any threat to his rule, he looked for a way to kill the new born baby before he could grow up.

4.       The devote man and women of prayer makes up the final set of people I want to look at in the Christmas story. An old man named Simeon, who devoted his life to prayer and the service of God knew God was going to come before the end of his life. Led by the Spirit, he went to the temple in order to see the dedication of Jesus. He prayed this prayer over the son of God. Luke 29-32 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Also, Anna, a woman of prayer, also waited to see God’s redemption come in the form of a baby.  They each thanked God for his goodness and prayed prophetically over the child.

We can see in the Christmas narrative swathe of people from various social standing and cultures who God wanted to be in on the wonderful happenings beginning for humankind in a little manger not too far outside Jerusalem. God reached out for many more to hear as the Angels were not shy to sing out loud for all to hear and bring the Christmas spirit to as many as would respond. We only know about the shepherds and those they quickly told after seeing Jesus. The movement in the heavens likely caught the attention of more than the Magi, but we only know of those that came to worship Jesus in response to what they saw. King Herod was confronted by the new as if he heard it on Fox News or CNN, but responded quite differently than the others. Those tuned into what God was saying and doing waited patiently for God to manifest himself at the appropriate time. God wanted the message out there and gave many people the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of his redemptive plan for mankind. He did not select an elite few to bear the news to all. What we should see from the Christmas story is the heart of God to get his message out to all.

The story of Christmas offers all people from any background a chance to respond to God. The hope is that they respond with humble hearts in worship, thanksgiving and glorify God.

What is it about the Christmas story that causes so many from various places to stop everything in order to worship God for what he did in the Christmas story?

A Refugee Christmas

I was encouraged when I went to visit one of the ministries the Foursquare Church runs in Mae Sot, Thailand. We arrived for a meeting with the national leader, Pastor John, and heard the children at Elpis School singing Christmas Carols to prepare for their performance this weekend.

Elpis School is a school for refugee children that flee Myanmar due to the less than hospitable conditions imposed by the Burmese army and tyrannical government. When Sylvester Stallone wanted to make Rambo IV, he asked which regime held the distinction of being the most despicable, so that he could be the hero fighting the villain government. His people came back to him saying it is not close…Myanmar wins…er, loses that contest hands down.

After our meeting with Pastor John, we visited the school which sits on the church property as they passed out new jackets to the children. Someone donated new jackets to help the children stay warm during Christmas. The temperatures don’t usually get much below 65 degrees, but to the people who grow up around here and normal weather is in the 90s or hotter, winter gets cold and jackets are super helpful. We loved seeing the kids take their gifts and try them on. Their joy bubbled over and cut us to the heart. These precious children, mostly part of the Karen people group from Myanmar, have so little in this world, yet they possess great joy in their heart.

The Karen people who live across the border from Mae Sot, Thailand cross the border looking for better jobs, where they can earn up $2 a day in order to take care of their family. Recently, the government held elections again…and easily won reelection. They released the dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (for full story, click here)… fearing little disruption from her anymore. However, the sham of an election sparked fighting from the different people groups. The fighting spilled across the border in Mae Sot, and at one time 20,000 people fled across the border, running from soldiers and the chaos at home. One RPG even landed in the popular shopping outdoor market at the border killing one Thai person. To read more, click here.

In this backdrop, the church in Mae Sot started a school for the children that come with their parents over the border. Thai schools don’t teach anyone who is in their country without permission. These children are left to fend for themselves, so churches and NGO’s have taken up the cause to help them, so they don’t end up sold into human trafficking. At Elpis School, more than 300 students are getting an official education and can move into other schools when they move out of this school. If they go to no other school later, they at least get the required minimum education in Thailand, a sixth grade education.

At Christmas, these children knew how to have fun and smile. They chase each other around the school yard laughing and smiling as much as any child in any context after receiving a Christmas gift. Their smiles can put into perspective any circumstance. At Christmas, I will remember these children and hope to have the same joy in my heart, because of what Jesus did on Christmas.

Mary’s Calling

I wanted to share the gist of the sermon I preached this weekend at Our Home Chapel. I looked at the story of Christmas from the angle of Mary, and the formation of a calling.

At the age of 13 or 14, Mary was suddenly given the news that she would be responsible for the Son of God. Jesus came humbly to this earth and relied on a human mother to raise him and show him how to live. God selected this girl from a small, insignificant town outside of Galilee to take care of his son. God tasked her with the duty to train Jesus in the way to live rightly.

First, God cared more about who Mary was than what she could do. In our world, we take tests or give a resume to prove what we can do in order to get a good job or enter the university of our choice. We base everything on performance and production. In God’s economy, He cares most about character and relationship. When the Angel came to Mary, and I can’t imagine what she must have thought when the massive being appeared before her dazzling in its beauty, Gabriel told her she had found favor from God. God looked down from heaven and found a girl with the right heart and makeup. We see her react in humility and faith. She goes on to respond to God’s call in worship, as seen through Mary’s song. She shows us how we can respond when God calls us. God has called us all to something. Some he calls to serve full-time in the church while others are called to business, journalism, law, medicine and a variety of other things to fulfill God’s work in all spheres of influence in the world.

Think about the calling that God has placed on your life. Know that he cares more about who you are, than what you do for him.

Second, I noted that when God gives us an assignment, he allows us time to prepare. God gave Mary the normal time of 9-months to come to terms with her new role and get ready. Mary did just that. After the angle announced to her God’s desire and confirmation by having her cousin pregnant in her old age, Mary quickly went to see with her own eyes what God was doing. She spent three months with Elizabeth. I am sure those months were spent inquiring of Elizabeth and Zechariah about could this be true, and what must she do now. Mary had the opportunity to talk with a respected priest full of wisdom and experience. I am sure she took full advantage of her time to prepare, even if Joseph wondered what was going on while his bride-to-be was off in another village for a long time while he prepared for his new family.

Not everyone will always understand what God is saying to us, or what is happening in our life, but we must find those mentors that can help us achieve our potential.

I am reminded of my grandfather’s story. He is one of the people I most respect. He lived a life of character and service to God throughout his entire life. He always worked with other men to help point them toward Christ and see them grow in their faith. He was a great family man. God had a special call on his life that never fully actualized itself. When he was a teenager at camp, God called him to be a pastor. He returned home from the camp to tell his pastor what God said to him only to have the pastor not see the God-given potential within him. The pastor did not affirm the calling on his life and in fact discouraged him from the ministry. The pastor knew he had family problems and didn’t see him going far in pastoring. We should never let one person derail us from the calling on our life, but sometimes one key person is all that it takes to dishearten us from fulfilling the maximum potential in our life. Remember, God is more concerned with our character, than our skills.

Finally, I saw in the story of Mary, someone flawed. God didn’t expect perfection, but he expects us to learn from our mistakes.

Mary forgot Jesus in Jerusalem after the Passover festival. What mom does that? Most parents do at some point…I am sure she was freaking out. Her 12-year-old son was missing, and more than that, the son of God was missing. She lost God’s only son…the one thing God asked her to take care of.

Later, when Jesus was an adult, she tried to call him away from the ministry fearing he had gone mad, Mark 3:20-21. Mary didn’t get everything perfect, but she learned from her mistakes and stayed close to her relationship with God. We find her right at Jesus’ feet when he was crucified. We even saw her numbered among the disciples in Acts 1:12-14. Mary kept moving forward in her walk with God. She fulfilled her assignment, but more than that she was the person God wanted her to be.

In conclusion, God doesn’t so much care about what we do as he does care about who we are and how close we are with him. In fact, he doesn’t need us to do anything. He is God and can accomplish anything he wants. All he wants from us is our heart, mind and body. After that, he allows us to participate with him in what he is doing on this planet.

So for the long post, but I hope you can find some helpful points as I unpacked the call of God.

Every Christmas’ Opportunity and a Miracle

Christmas offers the chance to tell the story of God.

In Thailand, the malls and department stores decorate for Christmas, but all the signs say Happy New Year. Christmas begins to spark a curiosity in the Thai people, especially the students. They are not sure what differs between Christmas and New Year’s Day in the West. They have no common narrative of Christmas. If they hear music like Handle’s Messiah being song by a choir in the mall, they don’t start singing along like in this video.

This allowed for a big outreach at the largest University in Thailand, one of the biggest schools in the world with more than 550,000 students. The Christian clubs along with a few churches joined forces and promoted a big event to draw students to hear the Christmas message. Live music blasted out of the PA system set up in the activities area playing praise music and Christmas songs. I imagine the students recognized the melodies to some of the Christmas songs as well as enjoyed hearing them in Thai. At the malls and other places that Christmas music plays, the songs are always in English.

The different groups set up booths to play games and give out prizes. Students flooded the area. With the mass of people gathered and a cacophony of sound, an outsider observer might say chaos ruled the event. After being around the country for some time, this is exactly what draws the people. The bigger and more frenetic games and parties are, the more exciting they are to the Thai people. This allowed us to share the Christmas message with them and initiate relationships. Now the follow up begins and long-term reliable friendships will be formed with many out of this event.

At the peak of students jamming into all the booths and the music blaring, rain drops started to fall. Keep in mind this is the dry season and rain at this time of year is rare, but we have had a couple of storms this week. I started to pray quietly, God keep the rain away. I knew that the rain would destroy everything planned for this open air event at the university. The Thai pastor from our church also prayed to rebuke the rain. The rain didn’t fall at the university, but when we arrived home, we saw puddles everywhere. We only live a few blocks away. The lightning was still flashing in the sky as we walked home. God wanted his story to be told at the university that night.

Christmas opens the door to thinking about Christ, but the relationships with the Thai people keep them moving toward Christ.

Finding the Spirit of Christmas

Living in Thailand takes you away from Christmas and all of its trappings in the West.

In America, we are used to people putting the lights up around Thanksgiving, some before and some after, pulling the Christmas trees out of storage or going down to the local tree lot to purchase this year’s tree, and traffic around the malls packed full of cars on their way to purchase gifts. Even as Christians decry our culture losing their way and forgetting the real meaning of Christmas with phrases like “happy holidays” and the such creeping in. Even in an ever increasingly post-Christian United States, the vast majority of people have a basic understanding of the Christmas story. Like no other time in the year, people’s hearts are turned back to Christ at Christmas. Whether it is the classic Peanuts Christmas where Linus reads the real Christmas story in spite of the network pushing Charles Schultz hard to leave that part out, or the manger scenes in city centers, Christmas tugs on our hearts and minds to remember the greatest gift God gave humanity, his own Son in the form of a human.

I remember a conversation with a former co-worker who represents many in the journalism business. When I worked at a newspaper, my boss, a true skeptic, told me how at Christmas time, he starts thinking about Jesus and God a lot more than the rest of the year. We can’t help it even as secularism pushes against Christianity in the US, people are sparked to think about God again.

In Thailand, there is not a shared background. It is not a matter of Santa Clause squeezing out the baby Jesus in our attention. In Thailand, they don’t even know where Santa Clause lives. They don’t know the stories behind the Christmas tree.  They barely even know what the date on the calendar for Christmas is. They have no idea the Christ in Christmas stands for Jesus Christ.

In the West, we do big Christmas productions to draw people back to thinking about God. Christians work overtime to make Christmas a time that represents the message of Jesus in order that as many as can would hear the good news in this season…The church does well in this and works to maximize the evangelistic capacity of Christmas.

In Thailand, Christmas gives the church a reason to celebrate. The church draws down their roots as to why Christmas holds great importance in the story of God.

We often find ourselves saying it doesn’t feel a thing like Christmas even if it is the cool season with temperatures staying in the low 80s. The malls decorate, but at the boundaries to the big shopping center, the Christmas decor stops and the remainder of Thailand goes about their business…that is beyond the doors of our house…

Our Home Chapel, where we serve, uses this time of year to have big outreaches in the park. I joked with my dad; we have what would be our church picnic in the winter, while you are digging your way out of the snow. I came home after the big event with lots of people who came with their friends to see facebook updates saying services were cancelled in Wisconsin due to heavy snow.  Living in Thailand at this time of year changes everything, but the reason of the season remains clear…the coming of our Savior to this Earth.