The Sheep Know His Voice

I was having a conversation recently that sparked a thought in my mind as I am transitioning into a new pastoral role. I love the picture of the pastor as a shepherd and have always chafed against the idea of the pastor as CEO. The shepherd gives an understanding of caring for the people in the church. When Jesus restored Peter, he asked him to take care of his sheep and Paul left behind shepherds in Acts 20.

As a shepherd, I find my calling to nurture the people and help them grow in the way of God. I come alongside of them and guide them in the way of Jesus to see them reach their full potential. As I transition now, I am pouring my energy into relationships. How will they know we care for them, if they do not know us? Vision casting is happening, but primarily in this season, I am being led to invest into the lives of the people God has entrusted to me.

As we transition and seek God for direction, we are listening to the heart of the people. My friend and mentor told me the shepherd needs to listen to his sheep to get direction. That may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but there is a genius here. Jesus said his sheep know his voice in John 10, and so often we leave it there. But how often did Jesus stop to listen to his people? The amazing thing about Jesus is how often he asked the people what they wanted. I am thinking, the blind guy is yelling out for you to show mercy to him, and the king of the universe is asking what the blind man wants. Ummm, as one blind person reading the story, I think he wants to see. But Jesus used opportunities like this to allow us to speak.

As a pastor, when we listen to our sheep, we can get direction for the church. I am not talking about listening to their complaints or asking them as a directionless leader where should we go. I am suggesting that if we listen to their hearts, we will gain a perspective as to where they need to be led. When we hear their hurts, pains and concerns, we can find a way to bring Jesus into those spaces.

In Thai culture, this doesn’t come easy. The power distance in a culture like this is extremely high. This means that that people are shy to speak their true feelings to the leaders. They avoid contradiction or asking questions. The leadership sets the direction and the followers get the worked done. In the West, it is completely the opposite. We are allowed to question our leadership and even ask why? This goes against the way of the Thai people. This means I need to foster the space to speak and for me to listen in a way that is appropriate in Thailand.

Now, Jesus walked and ministered in a culture that had a high power distance as well, and he found a way to foster open relationships. How many times was Peter getting in trouble for asking odd questions, like how many times is sufficient for forgiving your friend? The disciples also asked who is the greatest. Even James and John asked for the right to sit at Jesus right hand when he entered his kingdom. Jesus found a way with sensitivity to the culture to create an atmosphere where everyone had a voice. I want to do the same.

How often do you stop to listen to those you lead?

When you listen, how do you create space for them to have a voice?

Thanksgiving

As I think about Thanksgiving, I think about unexpected blessings…and want to pause a moment and think about our unexpected blessings. For us the unexpected blessing keeps reminding us she is there. Our daughter, Eliana has a zest for life and loves being around people. She will make sure you know she is around if you ever visit.

We cannot stop enough to thank God for his blessing of our daughter. We love her so much. After trying to have children for a long time, we thought there was not going to be an easy solution. We visited doctors and knew our option, but weren’t ready to do that yet, if at all. Our time for furlough was coming which meant a lot of travel and busy scheduling, so we decided to put a pin in our discussions on children and not stress about it for a while…until we returned to Bangkok.

Well, just before our return to Bangkok, we unexpectedly discovered that we were pregnant. We barely stopped worrying, and bam God blessed us unexpectedly. That was a year ago, now we have a happy, playful baby. Click here to see Eliana in action.

In this season of Thanksgiving, we want to always remember who we give thanks to, God.

What is one unexpected blessing you received this last year?

Stuck with no way out

Stuck only begins to describe the situation for many of the Burmese migrant workers in Bangkok. The Burmese church has a second branch in Omnoi, an industrial district outside of Bangkok among migrant Burmese workers. Normally the trek to Omnoi takes about two hours by taxi, but last week I joined with the Burmese pastor and several from the Thai church to take food to those stuck in the flooded factory zones with no electricity, and the journey lasted more than four hours. We traveled through flooded roads via army trucks and boats.

Many of the members of the Burmese Congregation that meets in our facilities come to Thailand on a limited visa. Thailand gives them permission to work inside of the country with the restriction that they must remain in specific districts at all times.

When their area became inundated with flood waters, the murky, black water rising higher and higher up to waist level or beyond, the workers bunkered down in their meager apartments near the factories that manufacture auto parts, chickens, furniture and more. Many of these workers receive daily wages, so when the factories closed, their wallets opened with no money for food. That is even if there were available venders to buy food from.

The Burmese pastor felt the burden to care for his people, so he went several times before I could join him to take food and supplies. The church kept offering to let them stay in the church building until the waters receded, but they declined. They feared fines or deportation if they were found out. Besides, they would rather hunker down with their community and help each other with what they could.

When the Thai church picked up wind of the gravity of their situation, they quickly began donating food to help with the effort. This is huge as Burmese and Thai do not mix well. Think of the immigration issue in America and magnify that by tenfold. The Burmese are the ancient enemies of the Thai people and are portrayed as the villain in most action movies.

When I went, I took home a great experience of the journey, but a profound memory of humble, faithful people who have a deep understanding for God’s providence in terrible circumstances. They cling to God through all of the unknown of flood waters, accessible food and water much less sanitary supplies, the unknown of when work will resume, and the unknown of diseases and dangerous animals lurking in the water. They cling to God and witness of the love of Jesus to their out-of-work neighbors. The mess in their neighborhood is far from over, but they know God is taking care of them through a loving pastor and supportive brothers and sisters in the Thai church.

I’ll never forget trudging through waist deep, icky water, climbing aboard army trucks, crowded busses, or tiny out-rigger boats to get to Omnoi and the factory workers. But I will always remember the resilience of the Karen people to trust in God through everything.

Have you ever had to choose between terrible and tragic? How would you hold onto your faith in such a circumstance?

Small Parts

Recently, I have been reflecting on how even the small parts can make a huge impact. With the seemingly never-ending flood in Thailand, some of the most unexpected collateral damage is affecting global manufacturing. Two primary industries have had more than a little disruption in manufacturing, the auto and pc worlds.

Apparently, Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of hard drives with a huge factory for Western Digital. With that factory out of commission, hard drive production in the world has slowed by ¼, and prices have gone up 20-40% . Also, auto manufacturers such as Honda, Toyota, Chevy and others produce a lot of cars sent around the world just south of Bangkok. Yet many of the big production has been slowed drastically as small car parts produced by flooded out factories in central Thailand have halted work.

In life, so many things that we participate in are interrelated. In the church we often talk about this with a picture of a body. I Cor. 12 gives us a great picture of how we are meant to live as a church with each member contributed to the common good of the whole. No part should feel less worthy or inferior to the others. Yet, we often lose that ideal as personal egos get in the way. Certain arenas of the church start to gain a higher quality while others seem to get pressed down into the lower regions of glory, or even shame. Take for instance the nursery workers. There are not a few churches if you look around who are not desperate for more nursery workers, while the worship teams create new and improved ways of staying a select group of talented singers and musicians. Don’t get me wrong, gifting matters. You don’t want me singing or playing guitar on the worship team. I am simply pointing out how some ministries gain all the notoriety. Getting people to work in the benevolence side of things or compassion ministries may not always come as easy either.

Yet if we neglect to empower and strengthen all areas of the church body, we can become one-sided or limit our full potential. If I am reading Paul right, he is exhorting the church to be well rounded and holistic in how they approach the ministry. Let’s not become the church that is known for one thing. You know the church that really nails it in one area and just puts all their eggs in that basket…an incredible worship leader, or the killer youth ministry, or the most amazing and creative kid’s ministry…

As with many arenas of life, the small things matter in a big way. Let’s not neglect the little things as we work to build the kingdom of God together.

What small thing in your world has turned out to make a big difference?

Living Away from Home

As we have written before, we have been homeless now for 11 days as flood waters wrapped around the streets of our condo. Since we left, the flood water levels rose up to one meter at the intersection by our home. Down the road a bit more, the flood completely swamped Kasetsert University, leaving the campus under 1-1.5 meters of water. With this murky, pungent black water flowing down our road we are glad we decided to heed the government warning and skedaddled out of the area.

In retrospect, we are glad that we left as the only transportation from our home has been the army trucks that are acting like buses. We would have had to walk almost a mile to the local mall to catch the truck, only to pack into the truck and move at a snail’s pace out of the flooded area.

Despite having enough food and water and plenty to occupy our time, we left our home behind. What good is it to be stuck at home and unable to do what we came to Thailand to do?

The past few days, we have been living at the 7-story church building and center for Foursquare ministry in Bangkok. We moved in with friends at the church which houses several people on a regular basis.

The catch word of flexibility on the mission field becomes ever more the reality we live in during this crisis. We’re just going with the flow. It makes it nice when you don’t have to spend time thinking about what you will wear in the morning. I have three dress shirts to rotate through the two church services each week and one pair of dress pants.

The first few days seemed fun and even a bit thrilling as we waited for the waters to keep creeping down the road from our condo to the place where the church building sits. We kept checking Twitter to get the minute-by-minute updates of shops in our old area closing due to the flood, water levels in our neighborhood, and updates on where the water was now.

The water has yet to come here and force my wife and daughter to the north of Thailand. So we just keep waiting. As days drag on, we wonder when the water will finally recede by our home…only to wake up yesterday morning to read that the Governor of Bangkok says his present to us for New Year’s will be a dry city. Thanks for the optimism. This morning brought better news, the major roads should be dry within 7-10 days.

We keep doing what we can to make the most of our change of scenery. Last night, we threw together a movie night with others from the building and community. If nothing else, this time as new pastors of the church is drawing us closer and closer together with the people of the church…and hopefully knitting them together as well.

The other morning, my wife spent a little extra time making a yummy breakfast, some eggs and toast. Well not really toast but bread. She apologized for the bread knowing that I understood the situation we were in. Yet when I bit into the bread, I was a little more surprised than I expected. Where was the butter!? I asked her why she hadn’t buttered the bread yet? Yet? She answered me, we don’t have any butter here. What can you do? I just shrugged my shoulders and ate the bread happily. If you have no butter, you have no butter. I knew we just have to keep doing to make the best of what we have knowing that a lot of our normal amenities are at home.

Now I know that our situation by no means is similar to many who are suffering at this time. Our neighbors a couple of floors down at the church building are Burmese migrant workers. With the factories they came to Bangkok to work in flooded and closed, they have no money to purchase food. Now they are returning home to Myanmar. Others from the Burmese congregation are flooded out near their factories but afraid to leave the legal migrant zones for fear of fines or worse, they are staying in their cramped apartments without electricity or food. In that area there is no place to buy food, and without jobs they have no money to buy food with. The Burmese pastor treks out there to chest high water via army truck a couple of times a week to deliver food to his people.

I think of other friends just north of Bangkok that have stayed in their home to protect it from thieves. They have stuck it out on the second floor of their house for nearly a month now. My friend cannot wait to get out of the house again. I can’t blame him.

…and for me, perhaps one of the biggest sacrifices comes at the hands of limited internet access. In the building, there is only internet on the first two floors. This means, between my wife and I we probably check the internet twice a day…

We do know that others have it far worse off than we do…but we can’t wait to get back to things as normal. You know with butter on the toast and a few more shirts to choose from. Or maybe this simplified lifestyle can go farther?

Loi Kratong

Loi Krathong splashed onto the scene this year with far less fanfare…almost as an afterthought to all of those in central Thailand affected by the flood or the soon coming flood. We went out this evening to participate in the festivities with some friends from the church and experienced a subdued Loi Krathong Festival.

Loi Krathong comes every November in conjunction with the full moon and celebrates the river goddess. This Buddhist folk festival honors the spirit of the river, thanking the spirit for everything they have received this year as well as a sort of atoning for this year’s sins. People build Krathongs from banana leaves and place a candle in the middle with decorative adornments around the side of their little boat like creations. The environmentally conscience build their krathongs from bread or fish food to help keep the waterways clean and feed the fish in the process. Thai people take these krathongs and place them in the rivers and canals throughout the country. As their krathong floats away, it symbolizes the taking away of their sins much like the scape goat symbolism of the Levitical law.

This year, the year of the epic flood and weeks on end of anxiety regarding the flood coming and constant news updates about the flood, many of the Thai’s stayed home and enjoyed Loi Krathong festivities online. Others simply stayed in as a silent protest against the water spirit.

As Christians, we look for a way to redeem the local festivals and see easy crossovers to showing God’s provision. We thank God for all he has done in our life this year. We also remember that we have put our sins on Jesus and reflect on his forgiveness. As Christians, we wanted to go out and share in the moment, not just because it is our daughter’s first Loi Krathong Festival, but because we thank God no matter our present circumstance. We must always exhibit a grateful attitude toward God. In this time of flood and crisis in the country, who else can we turn to but God? We took this time to honor our creator and remember all that he has done for us.

Just that One Thing

Let me muse a bit in this post on my recent devotions.

I have been spending some time in the Kings and looking at the life of the people who led Israel and Judah. I love the section from Samuel to Chronicles as I love history and story. These books are rife with incredible stories of intrigue, drama, romance, betrayal and action. If these books were turned into films by Peter Jackson, we would see epic battle scenes like in Lord of the Rings.

First a bit of overview. After the people of God demanded a king, God gave them Saul, ripped the kingdom away from him and gave it to David whose lineage led to Jesus. David’s grandson, Rehoboam incited a revolt by putting heavy burdens on the people and ruling with none of the tact and wisdom his father Solomon had. From that point forward, the kingdom split with Jeroboam ruling the 10 tribes to the north, Judah serving the descendants of David. In the North, Jeroboam set up idols to keep his people from traveling south to worship at the temple and thereby falling back in love with the idea of a united kingdom. Jeroboam led the people away from worshipping God and into sin. Every king who followed him led the northern tribes into sin with Ahab and Jezebel reaching a peak of wickedness.

However in the South, some kings followed God while others worshipped idols and led the people into sinfulness. I am struck by the epilogues given to each of the kings as the author gives a brief window into their character at the end of their life. There he shows how long they lived and how they led their people.

The righteous kings are said to have served the Lord, but… I am struck by the ‘but’. They were great kings except for this one thing. This reminds me of my Italian friend Lenny from Seattle. He was one of the rad parents of some kids in a youth group where I interned during my college years. He always said to me, “Andy, I love you. I really love you, except for that one thing.” Shocked, I replied, what one thing? To that he just said, you know, that one thing. He really played it up too, making me think I should know what one thing he meant as if everyone knew what character flaw he was talking about. After several go arounds like this, I realized Lenny was just giving me the what for and throwing me off of my game. As far as I know now, there was never that one thing. Or was there?

Back to the kings, character models for us as godly or ungodly leaders. Many of them were great, like Jehoshaphat and Asa, but they all had that ‘but’ in their eulogy. Even Asa, one of the great righteous kings, never removed the high places. These high places that tripped up Solomon as an area of weakness in his life from the very beginning led to him following the gods of his numerous wives and concubines. I have been reading biography after biography of these mighty kings and all their exploits, even how they turned the hearts of the people back to God, yet there is always a ‘but’. There is always that ‘one thing’.

As I read these stories, I am struck by the ‘one thing’ that hangs around in my life. There is always that one thing in our life that we are slow or negligent to give over to God. There is just one thing we cannot shake as we try to live fully sold out to God. Should I be encouraged that I am not alone, or discouraged that even great heroes of the faith couldn’t get it 100% right? I am not sure, but I know I want to work on getting all parts of my life handed over to God for him to work on.

Now, as I am writing about eulogies and life stories, what would you like your one sentence eulogy to say?

Here is mine…

He served God with a reckless abandon and lived life passionately as a loving husband and father all the years of his life.