The God of Compassion

Does the Old Testament paint a different picture of God than the God we worship today? I am starting a series on the story of God as seen in Elijah, so we can see the character of God and how he acts towards his people. The more I read the Old Testament; I see the love, compassion and grace of God evident.

Many think the two testaments contain two different Gods. In the New Testament, we see the God of grace, but in the Old Testament we see the God of wrath. I say nae nae to that. Some people see a capricious God who punishes people who don’t follow him. These people are not looking at the whole of the Bible to get a proper perspective of the God of the Bible.

In the Old Testament, God extends grace far longer than any of us would ever extend grace. Let’s look at the story of Elijah and Ahab.

Here we have a wicked king…a guy who aims at outdoing his predecessors when it comes to wickedness. He shot for the moon as he led the worship of Baal and other gods in the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab and his wife Jezebel to this day remain some of the most infamous leaders of God’s people…and I don’t mean “in” famous, more than famous. They led the Kingdom of Israel further and further from God. At this point the king who led the people in the natural sense and the prophets who led the people spiritually peaked in their contention.

It is here that Elijah pops onto the scene and we see God’s character of compassion and presence with his people. In this story, we see a God of provision who cares for his people. Elijah’s introductory bio gives little detail as to his background, but we quickly get a sense of his character and fearlessness as he goes to Ahab to pronounce God’s discipline on the wicked northern kingdom. God will now withhold rain for an unknown and extended amount of time bringing back to mind the promises he laid out for his people before they entered the land flowing with milk and honey. God promised ongoing blessings to his people if they followed his way, but curses on those who rejected him. His patient waiting for the northern kingdom to return to God came to an end when he brought discipline through the drought he warned of in Deuteronomy 28:22-24.

It is as though God says to Ahab and his wife from the land of Sidon that I am going to stop the rain in this beautiful land for the first time in your people’s history, and there is nothing your beloved Baal (the god of rain and lightning) can do about it.

After that, Elijah fled for the barren area of the river. At Elijah hid amongst the rocks and crags as God sent ravens to him carrying meat in the mornings and evenings. God always takes care of our needs. His provision isn’t such to make us rich or bless our socks off, but a provision to meet us where we are and take care of us. I am reminded of another simple man of prayer, George Mueller. This German missionary to London, England took care of orphans, 10,000 over 60 years. Early in his ministry he determined to let God be his source of provision and refused to take a salary as a pastor. Out of this simple faith, he resolved to allow God provide for the children as he prayed daily for them. He said that if the children ever missed a meal that would be evidence that God wanted him to stop the orphanage. They never missed a meal over the six decades of his care. God takes care of us.

If you are reading this and find yourself in a point of struggle, know that God knows where you are and wants to meet your needs.

Advertisements

Signs on the Doorframe

At first the signs above our door seemed innocuous. Apparently, they were the opposite of that. We asked what they meant, and were told that they were just Chinese sayings. We thought our landlord just liked Chinese stuff.

I guess we should have known better. Rarely do people hang something at their property without a cause. People in Thailand are clued into the spiritual world. Because of folk beliefs that lay under the surface in this Buddhist worldview, the Thai people work to have prosperity come and be protected from evil. To do this, they work to appease spirits and welcome other spirits.

This Sunday, we had a Bible study at our home when one of our friends had to wait at our door a short while waiting for me to answer the door. He then took the time to look closely, having glanced only quickly before, at the Chinese writing above our door. Our friend emphatically told me they were Chinese black spirits mentioned in the signs. Our owner wanted to invite prosperity to her house, so she paid homage to these spirits from the Chinese spiritual world.

Upon our friends warning, we pulled off the signs. He tore them in half and threw them in the trash while pronouncing a prayer to God.

We probably all pass by things that are not as harmless as we think, yet how much more so in cultures different than ours. Not that other cultures carry a greater amount of harmful objects and practices, but we are less familiar with the meanings placed on the forms that we pass every day in a new culture. It was that second glace, that long pause, that allowed my friend to notice the meanings behind those symbols. It is amazing how pausing and thinking twice about common objects around us can show us their deeper meanings. What have you realized had a deeper meaning after taking time to notice?

Dreams and Their Meanings

How often do you wake up and remember your dreams? When I have bad dreams, I almost always wake up and remember them vividly. Thankfully I don’t have very many of those. I dream, but I don’t wake up and remember them very often.

The other day, in Thai class, we learned about the Thai beliefs of dreams and their meanings. Now I remember learning in psychology class that dreams often come out of your subconscious and can give you insight about what is on your mind. In addition to that, God sometimes uses dreams to speak to his people.

The Thais have many beliefs regarding dreams. For example, dreaming about water is good luck while dreaming about a dog means that someone is thinking evil of you. There are also different meanings based on what day you had the dream and at what time of the night.

After studying all about the different meanings she gave a personal example and asked what is the proper Christian response. She said that Thais believe that if a tooth falls out in a dream, it means that someone in your family or a close friend will get sick and possibly die soon. She said that even though she is a Christian she still believes this because every time she has this dream, someone got sick soon after. What should a Christian believe about these things, and how should a missionary respond if a Thai person has that dream and is afraid. I responded that the first response should be to pray a prayer of protection over their family. At a later time, you can teach that Christians don’t have to live in fear of our dreams or other things because God is all-mighty.

This got me thinking though, does God use this belief to speak to the Thai Christians and warn them? Or is it just a long-term belief that the Thais are afraid of and are scared to let go of when they are a Christian?

Diversity

The creative brilliance of God’s handiwork shows up at the most surprising moments. This week we took a couple of days away for a spiritual retreat of prayer and fasting at one of the scenic spots in beautiful Thailand.

During one afternoon, we took a little tour by tuk tuk to see the wonderful views of the island. For me, I get to imagine the majesty of God’s creation as I walk with my wife and daughter around the spots that included a palace for King Rama IV, a Chinese temple with a lot of stairs that gave great vantage point of the city and a research center for oceanography. This is the spot that grabbed our imagination and spawned the idea for this post.

We found that the Gulf of Bangkok is home to a whale…possibly a new subspecies of whale.

Who knew that a warm body of water like this mostly known for its quaint islands and huge shipping lanes could also be home to a one of the huge animals in the ocean.

The diversity of God’s creation has become more apparent to us as we travel SE Asia, whether we are talking about plant life, the animal kingdom or cultures. We have seen beautiful orchids in Thailand, pink fresh water dolphins in the Mekong River between Laos and Cambodia, and diverse people groups who live in the mountains of northern Thailand.

God has created a diverse world for us to live in, and we fall more in love with his creation every day.

As we grow to learn the peoples of this world we see amazing peoples in the wonderful tapestry God created along this world. I love that God allows us to be the people he created with many of our customs and manners of life staying in place as we become followers of Christ. God changes our spiritual identity when we claim Jesus as Lord, but he allows us to keep our cultural and ethnic distinctiveness. It’s a beautiful world we live in, and I am always amazed as new people groups are discovered who have never been touched by the outside world. There are fewer and fewer left…but the amazing handiwork of God is still on display as explorers keep exploring.

Rain in the Windows

Two solutions to the same problem often arise when different cultures cross paths. This past Sunday, we saw a simple example of two groups of people each wanting a different solution.

The story begins at the church service with no air conditioning in the hottest season of Bangkok. Thai people often flock to the Malls and other places with air-conditioning they can borrow since they don’t want to use their own electricity, if they even have air-conditioning at their home. The church building was not only without air-conditioning, all the lights were out too as the city shut down power on the street for routine maintenance. Our Home Chapel held church service ‘unplugged’.

Now, the real conflict, if never really coming to the surface, presented when the rain started to pour. Two things completely the opposite began to happen. The Westerners welcomed the cool breeze that came with the rain while the Thai people quickly ran to close all the windows. We asked them to keep the windows open for the airflow, but perhaps unwittingly caused them to think we were super weird.

You see Thai people have a folk belief that if your hair gets wet, you will get sick.

By asking to leave the windows open, it would leave everyone in the room at risk for a cold or sickness. I didn’t realize it until I was standing near the window with Ellie helping keep her cool. A Thai person came over and said to be careful of the rain. At that moment, I thought the obvious, to watch out for my daughter’s head to not get to soaked by the rain blowing in the window. About thirty minutes later it clicked. That’s why they wanted to close the windows I mused to myself.

Sometimes being culturally sensitive takes a lot of time, and even if you know better, it takes time to realize what is happening. To the local people the appropriate cultural norms and actions come instantly without a thought. To us as outsiders working to identify with them on the inside, right response takes a moment sometimes.

Red Fanta Offered to the Spirits

Even as Buddhism covers the religious landscape of Thailand, many folk beliefs hang on in the minds of the Thai people. Last year, I looked at numerous traditional practices of the Thai people that mixed in with the universal beliefs of Buddhism such as spirit houses, house blessing ceremonies, lucky numbers and days, beliefs about birth and death among various other practices.

One thing in all of my observations that eluded me in the practices surrounding appeasing the spirits that live in the spirit houses was why people give them Red Fanta.

Folk beliefs help people make sense of their world. They explain the happenings of everyday life like why a young man dies in a freak accident, or another person succeeds on an exam. They help people deal with the spiritual elements of their world, and that drives many people to construct ways of appeasing the spirits around them. For Thai people, they believe that when they build a house on a lot of land, they need to build a small structure for the displaced spirit to live. They put these houses on the corner of their property. Spirit houses are a part of the unique and colorful landscape of Thailand.

Not only do Thai people build a home for their displaced spirit who watches over them, but they provide food and drink for the spirits on a daily basis. The spirits feed off of the aroma and flavors of the offerings left for them. Thai people put a good deal of effort into what they give at their spirit house as they don’t want to offend or disrespect that spirit.

Now back to the point of Red Fanta. Why this special flavor of Fanta? When we walk by various spirit houses, we always notice the flavor of Red. Is it because the Thais think that the spirits love that flavor more than others? I know I am not a fan, but maybe it is an acquired taste.

I thought there must be a reason behind why Red is the flavor even if it is not easy to find the answer. As we are studying more of the folk beliefs in our Thai language and culture classes, the books tell how many people don’t know why they practice one custom or another, but just that their parents and grandparents did it. But in a recent lesson, we came across the answer to the Red Fanta mystery.

Red is the color of blood…not that the spirits are just out for blood, but blood is the source of life. When Thai people offer the Red Fanta, they believe they are giving a drink to the spirits that offers them life and vitality.

As we study folk beliefs in Thailand again, I am constantly thinking of the different legends and stories we have to explain circumstances in our life…what are some of the interesting beliefs you see around you…

Success that Matters Part 2

Last week, I looked at John, the profile of a successful person according to Jesus. Today, I want to see the attitude of him. As I investigated the life of the person Jesus called great, I found myself stunned at how opposite his bio was from those we claim to be successful today. For that matter, his life is rarely lifted up in a Bible study or pattern to follow from those in the Bible. He is more like a flash in the pan with his family relationship to Jesus being his claim to fame. As we see him, he did something nice, but God tells us he is the greatest. Hmmm…makes me stop and pause.

But here is the real jaw dropper…The man Jesus called great had an attitude that mirrored humility.

Most people I have met who have any success today are brimming with confidence, bordering on cockiness. Meanwhile John the Baptist preached a message straight from the Old Testament prophets. These Hebrew prophets foretold the day of the Lord which no one really looked forward to as judgment would come. He called on people to repent, an unlikely formula for success. He even berated the elitist Pharisees who came to see him and what the buzz was all about.

More than all of this John cuts from traditional wisdom on how to be successful when he lauds the success of the new guy. In John 3, we see a story with John’s disciples asking about Jesus and all the people that are now following him. The people who used to come and listen to John have now flocked to Jesus. I imagine not too dissimilar to the staff members asking why all of our people now are going to that other, new hot church in town. We used to have standing room only on our Sunday service, and now there is sparse attendance, the young Jr. staff member asks. He goes on saying that guy doesn’t even follow the rules of ministry the way we do.

Here is how John responds.

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:27-30.

Wow, oh my…

I would love to unpack this for a while, but I for the sake of space, I’ll let us soak on what John says, especially, he must become greater, and I must become less.

This is not to say the new church with all the buzz needs to become grater, but that we have an attitude that Jesus becomes greater as we become less. Our ministry is not about acquiring fame or significance in this life but in making the name of Jesus great and lifted high.

I know in my life, as a young minister, I had dreams of greatness. I wanted to impact my community and influence others. I wanted to have a large youth group or speak at camps. I wanted to do things that lifted me up in the eyes of my peers. It is a tough battle to have the heart of John.

Even today, I want to write books that people read. I want this blog to make a bigger splash in the blogosphere. I want to be a missionary that influences a nation.

These things can drive us in ministry, but if we are led by our calling as John was, we can be seen in the same light as John was by our Lord, Jesus.

How can we ruthlessly work to keep our view of success like that of John the Baptists?