Month: December 2012

Thorn in the Flesh

I have known I was supposed to be on the field since I knew what the word ‘missionary’ meant. Sure I went through the archaeologist, astronaut, and the author phases, but whenever I thought for one second about what the Father wanted with my life, I was never in doubt. I became a believer at the tender young age of 5, and I went every summer to Nunny Cha-Ha GA camp. Those grounds will always have a special place in my heart. It was there that I first remember meeting a real, live M. I remember holding instruments from the place she worked, tasting traditional food, and seeing pictures of children not much older than myself, but very different in every other way. But what affected me the most were her stories. She told me about people who had never heard the stories I had been raised on. She told me they needed the Word that I had. And I was hooked. I was probably about 10 years old.

I don’t know when I first officially ‘surrendered to the call.’ To be honest, I barely even remember that experience. It was listening to the M at Nunny that has stuck with me for all these years. I’ve never had any serious questions about my career or future. I came to college with the same major I’ll graduate with in a few months, and I never once considered changing. I’ve never really had a crisis moment in my life about what I would do, how much it would pay, or whether or not I was following the career path Father would have picked for me. All things considered, it’s been pretty easy.

And on top of that, I have been incredibly blessed beyond anything I could ever ask or imagine. One of my favorite passages (aside from Eph 3:20-21) is Jer. 1:4-9. It talks about Father knowing Jeremiah’s destiny before he was even born. I claim those words in my own life. I have clearly been wired for work as an M. Father has given me talents and passions and dreams for which I cannot take any credit. He has perfectly fitted me for His work overseas. I LOVE children, and I only get tired of American ones (and even that takes a loooong time). I don’t mind getting dirty or grossed out; in fact, I often feel that the dirtier I am, the better. I’m very flexible and don’t handle time constraints well—I work best without schedules. I love to story too. I could sit with you all day long and tell you stories that would make sense in your culture and hold your attention. And the only time I’ve ever had trouble adjusting to a culture is when I return to my own. While it is difficult at times, on the whole, everything about being an M has come easily to me so far—until this year.

Paul gets pretty steamed up in 2 Cor. In chapters eleven and twelve he goes on a half-crazed rant about his credentials because people doubted his message on their validity. The first ten verses of chapter twelve are my favorite. Paul’s rant comes to a screeching halt and he takes a few deep breaths as he explains that all of his accomplishments, talents, and stories come to nothing when compared to the power of the Son. “Therefore,” he says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that [his] power may rest on me.” And how did he come to this realization? By something he calls ‘a thorn in the flesh.’

I have already boasted about the work Father has done in me and the gifts he has given me, and now I will gladly boast about my own thorn in the flesh. Paul describes this anomaly as “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” He never goes deeper than that, but whatever the case, he was plagued by some constant source of spiritual warfare. But what was meant for evil, the Father used for good, for after Paul asked for the thorn to be taken away, he is told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Through Paul’s weakness, Father’s power was most visible and active. Paul’s thorn was nothing but glory to the Father.

And so is mine. I told you before that pursuing the life of an M had been easy for me until this year, and I meant it. After falling absolutely in love with the Lord’s work among the Roma people, I was led to organize a return trip that fell through a month before its departure this summer. After applying to a two-year internship with my denomination’s sending agency, I was turned away until I got my weight under control. And in the midst of all this, my health has been a constant thorn in my side. I had bronchitis for over nine months straight. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which causes continually forming cysts, intense pain, weight gain, and anemia. These weaknesses have been my constant companions. Those of you who know me understand well just how weak they have made me. My health forced me to miss classes, I was prescribed a barrage of medicines, and I lived day by day. As the year progressed I began to realize that I was facing constant spiritual warfare because of my health and situations keeping me from the field.

I say none of this for pity or shock-value—I want you to see how superlatively good my Father has been. In the space of a year, he made what had been an easy road, difficult. After firmly convincing me that I was to follow him to the Field, He complicated things to keep me from becoming conceited. But more than that, He sought to bring himself glory. You see, in my weaknesses, the Father’s power is most clearly seen. Now it will be completely obvious to anyone who sees my journey to the field that I did not get there in my own power. I have no doubt in my mind that Father will fulfill his promises and take me overseas to join in his work, but now I can praise him all the more because I know that out of my thorn in the flesh, Father has grown something beautiful for his glory. And I can truly say with Paul, “That is why, for [His] sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

 

The Suffering Servant

*Contains some graphic material

Many members of our team have already had their turns being sick or injured. We’ve got someone maybe coming down with strep throat, someone’s got painful blistered hives covering hands and feet, someone’s got a fractured foot, and all but one of us have run fever and had body aches. We try not to whine and to pick up and keep going. This kind of thing happens all the time overseas. But in the last couple of days we’ve had experiences that have put our small aches into perspective.

Today at a service we shared communion. As we all drank, we knew that we drank a cup of suffering. We heard a message about the Son sending out his followers from the upper room (Jn. 20:19-23). We cross-referenced a few stories to compare and expound, but the bulk of the message was on the idea that the Son’s words there are about incarnational ministry. We learned that he showed his followers the scars in his hands and side right before he said, “As my Father has sent me, so send I you.” He meant that they were to suffer as He had, perhaps even to the same extent. We heard that just as the Ark was YWH’s presence among his people, so was the Son in his turn and the Body of believers in ours. We are meant to suffer and to love, for it is only by that love that people will identify us for what we are. Only through that Love can they identify the Way, the Truth, and the Life that we have.

So while the suffering may not be comfortable, it is a way for us to show love. We do have stories worth suffering for. We should be glad to endure heat, sore throats, and nights of little sleep for the sake of sharing those stories. It demonstrates the Divine Presence we wish to be in our communities here, because only something that good would motivate and sustain us through whatever suffering comes our way.

The other experience that put our aches and pains into perspective was Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. This was a very difficult experience and I am still dealing with it in my own heart and mind, so I apologize if my writing seems scattered. I do not want to shock you with my stories. I want to make you weep. Weep for humanity and corruption and violence and mercilessness. Cry out to our Father like Habakkuk. Seek healing and wash the blood from your own hands. This issue is not political or ideological; it is about sin and humanity. I want to prepare you for what you are about to read so that you are not shocked by the words you will see: Interrogation. Torture. Whip. Beat. Knife. Noose. Electric wire. Infanticide. Genocide. Mass grave. Bloodstain. Merciless. Kill. Do not focus on the traumatic impact of those words. Run through the images and associations brought to your mind before you move on. I want you to identify with the heart of this issue.

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. People fled from the city and it was entirely empty twenty-four hours later. For four and a half years the country lived in fear and the constant threat from the Khmer Rouge as the unchallenged ruling power. Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge party attempted a cultural revolution of sorts. The educated, the resistance, and the religiously affiliated were caught, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, sometimes in the name of ethnic cleansing or genetic planning, sometimes in the name of totalitarianism. But these deaths were many and senseless. Some estimate 3,000,000 deaths in those years, and 20,000 mass graves have been found throughout the country to substantiate those claims.

Tuol Sleng was a high school before the takeover, but it was converted into a prison and torture facility. Only twelve of the thousands who passed through its gates survived. Captors photographed each new prisoner and well-documented deaths and torture from whips, poison, severed limbs and digits, broken facial bones, and dunking prisoners into filthy water as they hung upside down from their ankles. All who came through were tortured and interrogated to produce coerced confessions before the victims were killed. There are still bloodstains on the floor and walls. Torture instrument lie where they were left. An artist who was spared death because of his skills was forced to paint graphic pictures of the torture methods, which hang hauntingly throughout the buildings. But worst of all, hundreds of pictures of victims look straight out of wide, terrified eyes from the walls.

And the Killing Fields were even worse. Sunken pits cover the landscape, their sheer volume an indication of the number of bodies since exhumed from the mass graves. A towering, ten-level stupa houses only a fraction of the intact skulls from some of the thousands of exhumed victims. I walked past a tree where babies were held by their ankles and beat against the tree just like someone would beat out a dirty rug. One mass grave had been full of people who’d been beheaded. Another had held only women and children, most of whom had been naked at the time of their death. We walked past a shed where chemicals were kept to sprinkle on the graves to cut the stench and finish killing those buried alive. There was another painting of a child flung up into the air with a bayoneted gun primed to catch him as he fell. And even after careful excavations, bones still remained in the ground. They, along with victims clothes, wash to the surface after rain. I could not avoid stepping on pieces of bone and rags of clothes and was deeply chilled.

What should our response be to such senseless violence? How could our Father let this happen? How could we, as humans, have the capacity for such unadulterated evil? One of the signs at the Killing Fields was captioned: “In the End Justice was Found for the Cambodian People,” but how can that ever happen? How can millions of broken families be repaid? How can there be justice in the face of such extreme evil? When many of the officials remain alive today, some are even still involved in the government?

I cannot give an answer. Lost people sin like lost people. Demons and evil spirits will stop at nothing to cause and incite death and destruction, violence and chaos. Does the Evil One win this battle? We believe that YWH is more powerful. That even in the darkness he is a great light. Habakkuk asked many of the same questions, and he was given an answer that was not easy. The prophets tell us that we have blood on our hands—blood of orphans, widows, runaways, aliens, and fatherless. Our Love should compel us to reach out to them and to minister to them in their distress. We are to drink the cup of suffering with them and weep as they weep. The Son wept. As he looked over Jerusalem in Lk. 19 he pondered the corruption, violence, and lostness of the city; he was overcome with tears of compassion. But he did not stop at tears. He ventured on into the city and set about restoration and redemption. That is the work we should be about. But we should begin by weeping. We cannot hide ourselves from the hurting. And we cannot hope to make a difference in their lives if we do not cry with them. So weep with me. And lift up the lost in the darkness of the past and the present.

I have a few more scattered thoughts to leave you with, and I apologize again for my verbosity. As I walked through the museum at the Killing fields I saw an agricultural tool used for slitting throats. I was reminded of our promise that one day, swords will be beaten into plowshares, but until then, the plowshares will be beaten into swords. We live in an age in which we wait for the coming of peace. It has not yet come fully on the earth. And even as I pondered these things in my heart, I remember another who had been cruelly beaten and tortured. As I saw paintings of striped backs being burned with salt water, I remembered the back of One whose stripes healed me—who is the balm for the healing of the nations. And as I thought on Him I understood his words of comfort. “I have felt this pain too. And it was not senseless; I did it for your sake… and for theirs.” He did. He suffered as much as the faces covering the walls of Tuol Sleng. His suffering brought glory to the Father, as should ours. Suffering gives us a change to deliver up true praise. This kind of praise does not come from a place of happiness and contentment. Anyone can praise in those situations. True praise comes from a place of suffering, when you praise in spirit and in truth because our Father is sovereign—because you know that he has a wonderful, beautiful plan that maybe you don’t understand, but you know it will be for His glory. So, in the words of Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,

Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,

Though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

He enables me to go on the heights.

A Culture of Stories

Any of you who know me well know I love to tell stories. I study stories at college, and I’ve told them since I’ve been able to speak… some of them have been more true than others. 😉 I don’t necessarily feel called to minister in the culture I’m currently visiting long-term, but I do love it, because this culture loves stories. I’ve seen two Christmas pageants performed by children, and in each one, there was no director sitting on the front row. Each child knew his lines perfectly. They sang, they danced, they read, they recited, and they acted with much gusto. They loved the story itself, and they loved to help tell it. That is how any important story is told in this culture.

I recently saw The Hobbit (more than once), and one of my favorite lines was “All good stories deserve embellishment.” This is the philosophy of people here: a good story should be embellished with drama and singing and dancing to enhance and proclaim its value and truth. We western Christians could learn a lesson from them. Stories are important. They are the fabric of our daily lives, with plot lines and truths weaving us together. We have built our culture, our beliefs, and our understanding of society on the stories we have been told. Certainly our Bible stories should be given a place of honor.

Unfortunately, the people here honor the stories of their faith just as much as the believers here. My team and I recently visited a Buddhist temple. As someone trained to recognize stories in their various forms, I was completely overwhelmed by their numbers. The walls and ceiling of the temple were covered in beautiful murals depicting gods, goddesses, spirits and humans in divine narratives. The various Buddha statues in the center of the building stretching to the roof told stories of how their real-life counterparts had achieved enlightenment and been relieved of the burdens of this world. The small idols for sale at the back of the temple were images of various deities whose stories tell of how they are especially equipped to bring those who house them good luck, health, wealth, or happiness. And worst of all, evil spirits inhabit the statues, tiny spirit houses, and objects they are invited into. These spirits control the lives of the people with their perverted narratives. The worshippers truly believe the demons have the powers they claim as ‘gods.’ They truly believe that by appeasing the spirits with money, incense, fruits and other expensive offerings, that they can win their approval. Their narratives are riddled with lies, so the promised fulfillments never come. And the people are enslaved.

I am more grateful than words can express that I know of the True narratives. I know of a loving Father, and a redeeming Savior. I know of a God whose story is not limited to a time or place; a God who specializes in being the All in All; a God who says of himself not ‘I will come,’ but ‘I Am.’ My God has given me the stories of Life—stories that always satisfy. And He hears me when I pray. I do not need flags that wave or bells that ring or incense that rises. My God understands my voice even when I cannot bring it to form words, because I have an Intercessor Incarnate. And that makes all the difference. Join with me in lifting these people up to Father. Ask that they would begin to learn the stories that will free them from their bondage.

A Child’s Communion

Most people have a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Everyone celebrates the story of when Darkness had seen a Great Light by coming together as a body, sharing bread and fruit of the vine, and a single flame, multiplied to fill a room. Christmas is, after all, a community celebration. We celebrate one of our founding stories together—as the Body. We celebrate the coming of the Body that was broken for us. There is something beautiful in the cycle of the calendar and the movement of the seasons that reminds us: there is a time to celebrate the Birth, and there is a time to celebrate the Death—the single human cycle that changed movements of the world.

But that single human who changed everything came as a child. He did not have his Father. He was not living in the comforts of the home He had known since the beginning of time. Regardless of all of this, that small child had a communion, of sorts. The Body had not yet been broken, but there was a gathering to celebrate the gift of new life. Joseph and Mary were there. A ragamuffin band of shepherds even came to goggle at the birth of their redemption. In fact, the whole of the created order was present for this first restored communion. The animals in the stable witnessed the birth of this Second Adam, just as they had witnessed the birth of the First. The baby was even nestled into a bed of hay—part of the vegetation that played such a prominent part in the story of creation and was to provide for the needs of all humankind. All was brought together for one shining moment of perfect community in perfect communion. And as we are told, Mary treasured these things in her heart, just as many of us savor the taste of the bread and the grapes as we meditate over their meaning and history.

My Christmas experience this year reminded me of a few of these essential elements of the first Christmas. On Christmas Eve my team and I found ourselves in a little village in Southeast Asia. We arrived too late to find any food, and all but a few vendors with day-old bread had shut their stalls and gone home to bed. We found a room in the inn, but we shared a meditative meal of crusty bread and some liter bottles of water. Mosquitoes buzzed around our lights instead of visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. We made due with what we had in a place with which we were not familiar. And we had our little communion. We met as members of the body and shared stories of triumphs and loss. After talking about our futures on or off the Field, we heard about the believers’ work here and glorified in their successes and ached for their disunity. We savored the taste of an already-but-not-yet redemption, given, but not yet brought to fullness.

I mulled my experience over in my head, read a bit of the Word, and went to sleep. We woke up on Christmas morning and traveled to a home for children—children missing parents or whose parents cannot take care of them at home anymore. My communion experience continued with them in a different way. I shared with them about a child born into a very similar situation long ago on this day we celebrate, missing instead a Heavenly Father and away from his home. I saw in their eyes the all-surpassing understanding of children. They too knew what it meant to be out-of-place but completely belonging. There were in a communion of the Saints, brought together by nothing except a shared grace. Their community was whole and beautiful, complete with the same already-but-not-yet redemption as in that lonely stable long ago.

Foundations of Stone

I have heard people talk about ‘building a worldview,’ but before today I never knew that phrase was anything more than a metaphor. Today we visited Angkor Wat—one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Khmer people’s most honored cultural site; and an all-around awe-inspiring place. Angkor was an ancient city, in fact, the capital of the Khmer empire at its peak. The city is built of stone, intricately carved into domes, archways, streets, wells, tunnels, and cisterns, to name a few. We visited the restored palace and a temple, as well as many of the ruins in the city. I was blown away by the amount of intricate detail and heavy grunt work that would have been necessary to build this city. In fact, this ambitious construction project contributed greatly to the empire’s downfall. The king and his government worked the common people so hard that they exhausted their resources and displeased their empire. Not long after it was built, the empire was taken over and the city lost to the encroaching jungle.

The city is, to all intents and purposes, the foundation and solid rock of the Khmer worldview. Angkor was originally devoted to Hinduism, but soon after it’s construction Buddhism was introduced and many converted. At some point Buddha statues were put into the complex, at which people still worship today. I think that Angkor Wat is a concrete representation of the Khmer worldview because of this superficial shift. The entire city is covered in carvings and statues of the Hindu gods and of Buddhas, just as the Khmer people today are ostentatious in their worship. The scrollwork, balustrades, and bas reliefs covered in intricate details are an example of how this culture’s religion surfaces in quite literally every aspect of life. The temples and the city represent this culture in full. The culture is based off of a Hindu-permeated society. The people worshipped a long list of gods and gave offerings to the spirits to appease them and bring health, good luck, or salvation. After the conversion to Buddhism, the culture picked up a love for stories (as told on the bas reliefs) and changed from worshipping many idols to just a few Buddhas. They still burn incense and leave offerings of money, flowers, fruit, other food, or any other gifts to their spirit houses in their front yard. The people here live in such darkness—the same darkness that caused the downfall of the great Khmer Empire.

Inside the temple and palace even today, people prostrate themselves on mats to pray. They burn incense, leave offerings, and follow the pilgrimage routes to appropriately revere the buddhas. They pay priests outrageous sums to protect their children with amulets or to send away spirits of bad health or bad luck. As Paul says, these people worship no-gods. There is no life in that stone, and certainly nothing that deserves adoration or the little money the Khmer have. But the evil spirits are at work too. The people think they are protected and safe, but in reality they have been pulled into a lie. They are literally selling themselves into bondage and working themselves into another fallen empire because of their devotion to spirits who answer their prayers with nothing but evil. These people need the stories we bring. They need to hear of the life they have been given—that the darkness has seen a great light.

Fires and the Comedy of Jesus’ Birth

Our team has laughed a lot together. We laugh at ourselves and our mistakes and our language learning adventures. It helps us to not take ourselves too seriously and to fit into the culture. There are times when laughing is the only thing you can do. For instance, last night we lost our power because the electricity pole across the street sparked and caught fire. Over half our team slept right through it like babies while the hotel guests were filing out with their bags. Those of us awake waited it out and decided to wake the others if the fire spread. This morning we had a quite the source of laughter from teasing each other about panicking and sleeping through utter chaos. Sometimes we have to laugh so we don’t cry. And sometimes we just have to laugh at how ridiculous we must seem. I have known my savior far too long to not believe He has a sense of humor. He certainly has an appreciation for irony. Just as we are supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, I believe we are supposed to laugh with those who laugh. I’m sure someone smarter than me could tell you about the health benefits of laughing—how it lowers blood pressure or releases endorphins—but they could also tell you that laughter is a psychological coping mechanism. When things are tense or difficult, sometimes our best defense as humans is to laugh.

The Khmer people have certainly been through more than their share of difficulties. Their history is riddled with persecution, prejudice, national disasters, hunger, and poverty. But they laugh. A lot. They laugh when they are uncomfortable, when people around them are uncomfortable, whenever someone is embarrassed, and just at life itself. But another reason they laugh is because they are able to do something most people can’t—they know how to find the comedy in everyday life, with all of its difficulties. How much more, then, do you think the Khmer who follow the Son laugh? They have true joy in life, despite their hardships. They know that in every situation, there is a true, giddy joy hidden below the surface, bubbling down deep. They have the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They are steadily moored no matter what comes into their lives, and they can laugh in the face of seemingly insurmountable troubles.

It should not have surprised me, then, when their telling of the Christmas story was riddled with laughter, radiant smiles, and a contagious joy that crossed all language barriers. The children put on a pageant of the story with costumes and everything. The wise men bent over their staffs and sported odd-looking Salvador Dali moustaches with attached beards. Herod was decked out in a yellow silk robe with a tiara on his head. The shepherds had their own herds of six-year-old boys crawling around on the floor in white button-up dress shirts. You see, they meant no disrespect to the story by staging and performing it this way. They didn’t mean for it to be a farce or something calling for derisive laughter. They valued this story so highly that they simply could not overlook its good tidings of great joy. Here is a story that, to them, meant the world; it meant that in their background of land mines, indigence, and the Khmer Rouge, there is a story of everlasting comfort to all people—a story of such joy that you can’t help but laugh at its brilliance and giddy delight. Unto us a savior is born! Unto us a son is given! And he means the redemption of the world. Who can help but laugh at such a wonderful gift of joy and salvation?

Christmas through the Eyes of a Wanderer

I have heard the Christmas story more times than I can count. I have not told the story quite as many times, but I can almost quote the Luke 2 version in King James verbatim, and within the next month I will tell the story quite a few more times. But this year the story sounds different. You see, this is will be my first Christmas away from home.

One of the things I’ve learned about stories is that, as hard as we try, we still tell and interpret them based off of our own setting. I know that the Israelites wandered in the desert and I know it must have been awful for them, but having never been to a desert myself without air-conditioning, I can’t very easily understand what it must have felt like. The Christmas story is the same way. We are used to hearing it from a cushy pew or curled up at home in Christmas pajamas, maybe sipping hot cocoa or picking up scattered bits of wrapping paper. I have always heard the story in the context of home—with people and places I know, traditions, predictability, and familiarity.

But nothing was familiar about the first Christmas, and nothing was homely. All of the characters would have been traveling, scared, and not anywhere close to home. Mary and Joseph were barely married, and they had been ordered to travel to a village they had never been to before. Mary was pregnant, uncomfortable, and in pain, yet she had to walk or ride on a donkey for long stretches at a time. Joseph would have had no idea where he was going—they didn’t pick out a hospital beforehand where Jesus would be born. And when they finally got to Bethlehem, Mary didn’t know she would birth her savior in a stable with animals and dung-ridden hay. She didn’t have a midwife or any of her relatives to attend her first birth. Nothing would have been as she expected.

And what about the shepherds? And the Magi? The Magi weren’t at Jesus’ birth but they arrived at the small family’s house after what could have been months of traveling through the desert on sweaty, smelly camels. And the shepherds were outside at night. Maybe it was cold. Maybe they were hungry. Whatever the case, they weren’t huddled with their family in front of a fireplace sipping cider.

The truth is, no one was home for the first Christmas. Maybe it was 23 hours on a plane headed to a country with a language and culture I’m not familiar to make me realize that truth. But now I understand that no one was comfortable; no one knew what was going on; and no one was around the familiar. The Christmas story, then, is not necessarily for people who are home. It is for people who wander—for people who are lost. And that is who I am going to share this beautiful story with. Please lift me up to the Father. That, more than anything else helps my team and me to have these kinds of opportunities.

Update: We all arrived safely with no missing baggage or delayed flights. They were long flights, but we were well taken care of. We’ll sleep tonight and wake up in the morning and head to the village. This will be a lot of language and culture learning for us so that we are sensitive to the people and how best to share our stories with them. We will be visiting churches and connections that we know, but we will have many opportunities to story. I’ll be telling the Christmas story to kids with candy canes, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to share the One Story of our Book and our own personal stories of our relationship to Father.