I have finally gotten my journal together from my trip to Thailand. It's been somewhat difficult to do in the middle of being gone on the road once again. But, I think it is in presentable form.
Also, my computer has been on the fritz several times over the last month. This has added to the difficulty. But, it's been Danl to the rescue and everything seems OK now.
Anyway...I hope you enjoy the journal. I enjoyed keeping it. I had an unbelievable experience.
I went on the trip to be exposed to the work that Compassion International is doing in Thailand. I will be taking part in a tour in the fall in which I will be presenting Compassion's international work. The tour will include the bands Clear and Satellite Soul and will be called the 1000 kids tour. I have been telling people about the work Compassion is doing in the U.S., and I wanted to be exposed to the overseas work so I would be informed enough to present it to people. Compassion was gracious enough to make it possible for me to go on this trip.
I was accompanied by several folks that work as volunteers for Compassion. The trip was headed up by two Compassion employees, Chris Brewer and Regina Hopewell. They did an amazing job. It was a great joy to get to spend the week with Keith Bourdeaux. He is the artist relations manager for Compassion in the eastern region. He is who I work with when it comes to dealing with Compassion. This is great because, Keith is also my roommate, ironically.
I hope I have managed to explain a little of what went on and how it impacted me.
Journal Entry 1--
Humor has no language.
We are on our way towards Bangkok. We are flying towards Tokyo. We have only been traveling for two hours. However, it hasn't taken long for me to realize that I can't communicate with many of the people sitting around me.
Rather, I should say, we don't speak the same language. But, some communication has been taking place.
I have spent the last two hours exchanging glances and giggles with the Japanese boy sitting diagonally from me. He must be around ten years old and I have come to find that humor has no language.
We have been getting each other's attention, opening our full mouths of food as wide as we can, and laughing. We continue to do this back and forth; so that it brings smiles to our faces--as broad as the ocean we are crossing; and so that it brings hearty laugh from our freshly filled bellies.
It hasn't taken long for our antics to progress to eye-crossing and the stuffing of napkin-wads into our nostrils. We, then, move on, to balancing the half-chewed raisins on the tips of our tongues and to making 'fish-faces' at each other.
There is a joy that exists beyond our abilities to tame it and measure it. It is not held down or upheld by our feeble attempts at words. Humor has no language.
Many of those close to me would say that I have been behaving 'uncouthly'. But, I would be interested in seeing their more "conventional ways" of breaking through into this boy's world. Sometimes laughter is the best way to speak.
So, I say, "the heck with uncoutheness, I want to communicate. I want to meet, soul to soul, heart to heart. And, who knows? We might. Maybe the laughs we share will somehow become a prayer that will, in some way, transform each of our souls."
That is my hope. That is my prayer...
"O Lord, transform me. Transform him. I'm thankful we have had the opportunity to participate in the joy that exists beyond us. May this experience point us closer to the source of all joy."And, yes. Joy is both immeasurable and untamable. If it were any other way, it would not be joy.
Sometimes, laughter is the only way to speak.
And, no, humor has no language.
Journal Entry 2--
We flew for 22 hours.
Add that to a time change of twelve hours and we arrived into Bangkok at midnight on Thursday, after leaving San Francisco in the early afternoon on Wednesday.
I got up and went for a walk before we had our introductory meeting, as a group. I wanted to spend some time getting lost in the hustle and bustle of the city. Plus, I was in search of a coffee shop. I found coffee at--SURPRISE--a "Starbucks". I paid 85 baht for the latte. The exchange rate is 40 baht to the dollar. The "Starbucks" is next to a "McDonalds", which is next to a "KFC". Some franchises have successfully crossed over into a completely different culture.
Bangkok is the most chaotic city I have ever been in. It's the epitome of hustle and bustle. It's population is 7 million; and, as far as I can tell, there is no downtown. All sections of the city are created equal. Each section is packed with pedestrians, street vendors, cars, and motorbikes. There are layers and layers of buildings and they are reaching in every direction imaginable. There would never be any reason to leave the city; except, maybe, to find some grass.
On one street corner, I stumbled upon a Buddhist shrine that was swarming with people. However, it was serene and there was a thick layer of respect and reverence hovering over the place. There was not a word spoken the whole time I was looking on.
The shrine was octagonal with four places to kneel and pray--whatever they pray and say whatever they say. On the north, south, east, and west sides of the ornate shrine, people would kneel with their smoking insense sticks, which they had ignited at one of the four burning flames at the corners of the shrine. They would hold them to their lips, pump them up and down, and recite something, Afterwards, they would dip the bulb of a lotus plant into water and repeatedly shake drips onto themselves. They, then, would press their hands together in a praying fashion, put them to their lips, and bow their heads.
This would conclude their time of devotion and they would walk on down the street and proceed with their day. I found it fascinating to watch people devote their thoughts to something beyond themselves.
Many people would feel compelled to share the opinion that these people will burn in hell. And, others, when pressed, would have to agree. I am told that these people's lives and culture, are of the devil.
I ask.."Is it our place, as followers of Jesus, to draw these conclusions and to allow condemnation and hatred to parade themselves as piety? Is it not the place of a follower of Jesus to love and to find the good in whatever situation that is in front of them?"
There is good here, if you have the eyes to see. And goodness only comes from God. Even Jesus says that. The people I saw this morning had stepped outside of themselves, left themselves behind, and looked beyond themselves. (Now, yes, their outlook is incomplete, their viewpoints have been misled, but what choice do they have? Their culture, upbringing, and beliefs are very intertwined. They are doing their best. It's up to us to shine the light of truth.)
Dying to self sounds like the gospel to me, no matter how you slice it. And that is happening here.
No, the Buddhist religion isn't the "be all and end all". That's plain to see. The embodiment of that is found in Jesus. It's not found in white suburbia, the jungles of southeast Asia, or in American Christianity. Not in Buddhism, Atheism, Hinduism, Judaism, or any religion man has created. Only in Jesus. Period.
This is all very overwhelming and confusing, so I cling to this--
God is God.So as I was walking around this morning, I was asking myself, "I flew 22 hours for this?"
God is love. God is merciful.
And Jesus is the Savior of the world.
The answer was clear, "Yes, I did...and what a blessing it is."
Journal Entry 3---
We drove to a Compassion project located in the slums of Bangkok. All of the children at the project were of pre-kindergarten age. The children would spend their mornings in the classroom learning the basics of life and the Christian faith. They, then, would be fed lunch, provided with a naptime, given a snack of bread, and provided with a time of outdoor recreation.
It was boiling hot and the school was pretty much an open-air building. The children were all well behaved and all wore uniforms. The school (which was actually a pre-school lunch program with a lot of perks) was unbelievably organized. It was obvious that the people running it, which we all Thai, cared for the program very much. There were loving. They were giving.
Located in the heart of one of the filthy, broken-down, hopeless areas of the city, the project was a light to it's community. The children were given an opportunity. They are, by all respects, forgotten. However, here, people are taking an interest in them and telling them that they are valuable. Everything done at the project is done with the love of Jesus.
Journal Entry 4---
Today we drove 52 kilometers to another Compassion project, which is a full-fledged school on the rural outskirts of Bangkok. However, thanks to Bangkok traffic, which is the worst I've ever been in, it took one-and-a-half hours to get there. The return trip was even longer. It took two-and-a-half hours. So, because of the Bangkok traffic, we got to experience even more of Bangkok, for even longer. That was a good thing.
The school had 1100 students and a campus approximately the size of most American high schools The students ranged from kindergarten to ninth grades. Most of the buildings were open-air. There was a chapel, a dormitory, a cafeteria, an administrative building, a building containing classrooms, and an extensive playground. The school also had the only swimming pool for miles, which they were very proud of.
The school was founded some 60 years ago by a Thai minister, who is now 84 years old. As he spoke, you could see the love he had for the students. He said that approximately 30% of the school's students were sponsored by Compassion. This means that they receive a hot lunch and a uniform. The others don't go without, they merely provide for themselves. There are many in definite need of help.
We were treated to lunch by the school's staff members and a program of dancing and singing by the students. Then I played a couple of songs for the students. They didn't understand me, but what a great experience it was.
Journal Entry 5---
Today we stopped at a very large Buddhist temple. Once again, the sweet smell of insense hung in the air, along with a thick layer of reverence.
I was walking around the temple grounds when it happened ... A monk, roughly the same age as I am, was coming towards me. Maybe he was used to people passing him by without acknowledging him; but, as we passed, I nodded my head and smiled. Buddhists show reverence to monks by not looking at them; so, with my simple gesture, he lit up.
His face glowed. He smiled and nodded back. In that moment, there was a spirit of kinship between us. Granted it was just a moment that quickly came and went; but, what I saw in his eyes, I will not soon forget.
In his eyes, I saw both depth and warmth. At the same time, his eyes were both lonely and inviting. They were eyes that knew they did not know much, but were thankful to know what they did. It was in his eyes that I saw Jesus.
Now, call me crazy. Call me an idealist. Call me a heretic. I'm merely reporting the facts. And, that is what I saw. That is what I believe.
Isn't it just like Jesus to break through into our world when we least expect it--to rip through our various attempts at culture and religion and douse us in a truth that is beyond all that?
Folks say that Jesus is no where to be found here. My reply to that is simple--Jesus is everywhere. If only we would have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is my prayer--that I have the eyes to see Him and the ears to hear Him.
Why would we ever think that Jesus wouldn't show his beautiful, shining spirit to us, wherever we may be? For, Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Journal Entry 6---
This morning we headed out to visit the Grand Palace. It covers a square mile and it houses both the King's Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. I was struck by the opulence that I saw. The buildings were composed of gold, jewels, and glass; and were the most ornate I have ever seen. I guess this would be the "pin-ultimate" place for the Buddhist (ala Mecca or Jerusalem). However, it was nothing more than a place of tourism.
I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't at Disney world, with the "fairy-tale-like" buildings and the perfect gardens.
I have come to learn that Buddhism is very inwardly motivated. It's a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of religion.
Yes, my perceptions of Buddhism are changing.
Apart from the ringing of some bells and the chimes on the roofs of the buildings, there was no real reason to have any joy--no reason to be lighthearted or happy. Each person was striving to achieve perfection. It was all about one's own determination to do so. Actually, devotion seemed to be an exercise of individual development and; not really, a submission to, or resignation to a greater power, as I once thought.
So; there was no real reason to be loving or giving. For, the people were not worshipping a loving, giving god. They were working to achieve better "humanness", and this seems to be rather fruitless, in the end.
For, our perfection stems from the fact that we are made that way by a gracious God, who is concerned enough about us to mold us. Perfection can never be achieved by our own efforts. Our attempts at this will leave us frustrated, unfulfilled, and exasperated.
I have been unable to detect any of the freedom that comes from being rescued from ourselves. No sigh of relief. The people here seem to be trying to rescue themselves. I pray the light of truth shines and I pray for their souls.
So, I no longer am fascinated. I no longer have a sense of wonder. I now can see that they are lost and need to be found. Oh, Lord. They need to be found.
This is the exact same prayer that I pray for myself everyday. I, and most of the people I know, are struggling against their own lost-ness. The good news is....God will hunt us down. God is in constant pursuit of you, me, and these people.
God will bring us all within a divine light. A light that does not illumine us, but helps ---helps us to see God even more. We all are in different levels of darkness; but, I'm thankful a light is shining. I'm thankful that the light saves the world.
I am tired. I will close my eyes and it is my hope that I rest in a holy radiance.
Journal Entry 7---
The street vendors in Bangkok are like air. They are everywhere, selling things I have never heard of before. Many of them are selling food--such as exotic fruits and vegetables that, (I'm told) would be dangerous for me to eat for sanitary reasons. As I walk, my senses are challenged. Each step I take is a new and different experience in smell, sight, and sound, (and taste, if I would allow myself, I'm sure).
One one particular street, vendor after vendor was selling meat. It was on skewers, in bowls, and on plates. There were raw chunks of meat hanging next to one another, waiting to be selected and cooked. The meat was mingling with the city air and whatever was in it. There was tongue, pure fat, something that appeared to have whiskers, wild boar, and much more that remains un-nameable and beyond description. When selected, the meat would be dropped into a boiling vat of grease and prepared. This, I was told, was also something I shouldn't eat...as tempting as it was.
This was one of the many priceless experiences--something not easily captured by photograph or video-tape. So, maybe I should be thankful that I have neither a video camera or a conventional camera.
Experiencing this is the only thing that could ever do it justice.
Journal Entry 8---
Today we took a boat ride on the river that weaves its way through Bangkok.
The water looked like chocolate milk, with various pieces of trash floating in it. The river was central to the city. Life truly revolved around it. Houses were built right on the river bank---even out over the river bank, on stilts. The river had a constant flow of traffic that was coming and going.
The people were unfazed by water that we would be repulsed by. They were swimming in it and playing in it, and children were being bathed in it.
Each house was constructed out of wood and had a deck, which served as a patio-like work area and dock. There were houses upon houses. It would have been impossible to get more along the water. People had even turned the space beneath bridges into living quarters. There was no wasted space, not even close.
Trolling through the river, we saw countless people. They were going about their business--they were sitting there--they were standing there. Each, and all; I think, was secretly hoping to be acknowledged. They would act as if they do not notice you, until you would wave. Then they would beam. They would light up and shine.
They are warm, warm people.
Journal Entry 9---
Today is Sunday. We went to worship at a Thai church. Our being there seemed to be a major, monumental event. I'm sure it was. Large, loud, fair-skinned, rich people probably don't visit too often.
As a group, we, Americans, sang three worship choruses. I accompanied the group on guitar. I, then, played and sang a song by myself. As I was starting the song, I realized that it had been six months since I had played it for anyone. Those in the congregation were unable to understand me, anyway. The language barrier was a new one for me; so I hope that, maybe, they could hear my heart.
There was a definite sense of freedom throughout the service. The two ministers were very lively and the people were very joyful, as they sang praise choruses. There were approximately fifty people worshipping.
The morning was in stark contrast to the Buddhist culture I had experienced in the days prior. There was a lightness that replaced heaviness. There was a fluidity that replaced ridgedness. Joy replaced piety and laughter replaced nobleness. Freedom had definitely replaced obligation. These people were not attending because they "should"; but, rather because they had been rescued. Saved.
Here, Christianity was making a little more sense to me (though I do think it is dangerous to fit the revolution started by Jesus into the confines of our abilities to make sense out of things). These people were bucking the system. This movement was definitely one that was counter-culture. Rarely have I been fortunate enough to experience this kind of counter-culture phenomenon. However, these people were living it, and I was blessed to experience their experience.
Journal Entry 10---
Later that afternoon, we drove into the mountains near the Burmese border. We visited an Akaa village, which is a hill tribe that has been living there for centuries.
We were greeted by a group of small women, approximately 4 1/2 feet tall. They were all wearing traditional dress. The inside of their mouths appeared to be bleeding. Instead, however, they were chewing on a berry that turns their teeth purple and their lips and gums red. It was their thinking that white teeth were bad; so they did this to permanently stain their teeth.
It was amazing to see a people that has lived on the same mountain, in the same village for their entire lives. This is an exact opposite of what I am used to. I am used to everything being based on achievement, advancement, and mobility. So; this way of life was, needless, to say, very foreign to me. And, I have to admit, a little depressing.
Yet once again, the experience of interacting with these people on the opposite side of the globe was priceless.
Journal Entry 11---
This afternoon we visited a Compassion project in Chiang Rai. I was struck by the politeness of the children and the organization of the school.
We were presented with tangerines, pastries, and fruit drinks; while the Compassion program and school were described to us, in depth (through an interpreter). The school manager's presentation was streamline and I longed for that kind of organization. I was blown away by the generosity of the whole staff.
Most of the students were from hill tribes. They were from villages very similar to the one we had visited the previous afternoon. I was impressed by the school's evangelical outlook. Out of one thousand students, ranging from kindergarten to high school, only 35 % were Christian. The majority of the students were Buddhist, while the rest came from indigenous, tribal religions, that worshipped tree spirits and jungle spirits. They were all given the same education and treated with the same loving and caring guidance. The manager told us that, after a year or two, many of the non-Christian students make the decision to become Christian and are baptized. It is beautiful to see Jesus at work.
Compassion is making a difference there and the spirit is moving. However, only 1/3 of the students are being sponsored by Compassion, and there are many that are in need of help. We were told, by the staff, how valuable written correspondence between sponsors and the children, is. And the financial support each child receives is, obviously, a huge help.
I met Somchat, who was a student at the local university, and was doing his student teaching at the school. He was from the Lahn hill tribe and was, now, teaching English. He, himself, was sponsored by Compassion as a child. Therefore, he was able to attend a boarding school in Chiang Rai, some three hours from his village. He said that he wanted to give something back and felt no desire to leave the area, after his schooling was completed. He said that he loved his people and wanted to stay there and try to impact them.
Maybe, just maybe, Somchat, who called himself "a born-again Christian",was called out of his village to do what he is doing now.
It is beautiful to see Jesus at work.
The spirit is moving.
Journal Entry 12---
We, then, flew to Chaing Mai, which was my favorite of the three cities that we visited. Bangkok was huge. Chaig Rai was small, approximately 40,000 people. Chaing Mai was in between. It's population was around 175,000.
The night market in Chaing Mai was one of the coolest experiences I had. Vendor after vendor was selling everything from electronics to watches to luggage to crafts to shoes to t-shirts. It is very much a nighttime community. It thrives until midnight. Actually, most business happens very late at night.
The vendors are very aggressive in getting your attention , as you walk by, and offer you whatever it is that they are selling. They always offer their goods at a price, "especially for you". I learned, after a while, not to make eye contact, unless I had serious intentions.
Capitalism is alive and well in Thailand. It looks a little different, but it is ingrained in the culture, even more that I am used to (as an American).
Journal Entry 13---
We, later, went into the hill country. We went into the jungle, with the intention of going elephant-riding. It was a total tourist thing to do, but it was a great experience. I had no idea we were going to get to feed the elephants, but doing that was amazing. We bought a few bunches of bananas and bamboo for the equivalent of a dollar. The elephants were walking all around and among us.
If you weren't careful, the elephants would snatch the food out of your hand, rather unexpectedly. They would reach their trunk around you. This is how I parted with my first bunch of bananas. It gave me quite a start, to say the least.
Riding rhrough the jungle on the back of an elephant was far from a smooth ride. But--it was an irreplaceable experience.
Journal Entry 14---
Visiting Thailand's Compassion International office was quite a learning experience. To meet the staff and to learn, first hand, what Compassion is doing in Thailand was beautiful.
In the office, there were about twenty five staff people jammed into a space that would serve a half dozen people in the States. Compassion works through established churches and schools; and is, definitely, making in-roads in Thailand. There are more than 15,000 children sponsored in the country. That sounds like a lot, but it is a tiny fraction of what Compassion is hoping to do.
However, once again, it is beautiful to watch Jesus at work.
Yes....The Spirit is moving.
Journal Entry 15---
This morning was the highlight of the trip. At the beginning of the week, I selected a child to begin sponsoring, from the packets we had with us. I knew that I would have the opportunity to meet him on the trip and I really wanted the chance to bond with the child I would sponsor.
His name was Niwat. One of the reasons I wanted to sponsor him was that he seemed to be very athletic, according to his interests that were listed in the Compassion packet. This was something I thought we could have in common.
I was also interested in sponsoring him because he was soon to be ten and he was rather old compared to other compassion children needing to be sponsored. Most of the time, children are no longer eligible to be sponsored after being ten years old. Children continue to be sponsored up until they finish school, but i knew Niwat's time was running short and the ball needed to start rolling soon. Also, I knew we would be able to write back and forth better, since he was older (through a translator, or course).
As it turns out, we weren't to visit Niwat's program until the end of the week and I wouldn't get to meet him until the day we were to leave. Though, I had reason enough in wanting to sponsor Niwat, I was unprepared for the way my meeting him would impact me.
I was captivated by him the moment I saw him. He was confident and strong. He was warm, friendly, and gracious. I learned that he was actually twelve years old and had started attending school late. He was fourth in his class out of fifteen and he love to play soccer (football would be the correct term).
I was then fortunate enough to go to his village and visit his home and meet his parents. This was an amazing experience. We had many things in common, but then something spectacular happened.
In the corner of his home, which was constructed of wood and bamboo, stood an old, warped, beat-up guitar. I picked it up, tried to tune it, and handed it to Niwat. He then proceeded to play and sing a song. He used the same chords I'm used to playing and had a beautiful, angelic voice. I was overwhelmed, and it took a while for this all to sink in. I could only sit there and listen and watch, and the situation and circumstances began to stir things within me.
Here I was, halfway across the world, in the jungle, in a hut with no electricity or running water, listening to a young child from the Karen hill tribe play and sing. It was one of the more beautiful things I have ever experienced.
Why did I pick Niwat out of the stack of children needing to be sponsored?
Why did we have the things in common we had? Why did he play the guitar and sing?
How do things like this happen?
It all blew me away. A lump rose in my throat. My soul began weeping with joy and my eyes teared up with happiness.
The guitar was in terrible shape and sounded awful, but the song touched me in a way nothing had for a long time. His father, who had taught him to play and sing, then played a song. Then I did. They were very warm, welcoming, and grateful, and I longed to be able to communicate with them verbally.
I couldn't have scripted it any better if I had planned it all out myself. I don't think very providentially about things very often and I have been longing to look at things more in that manner. That's why this was so overwhelming. It was undeniable. It was a gift. It was impossible to not notice it. I couldn't ignore it. Something was going on. There were enough "coincidences" and circumstances stacked together in such a freakish way, that I can only assume it was God's doing.
It leaves my head spinning. It leaves all of me...heart, mind, and soul...boggled. It leaves me thankful.
It would be easier for me to deny God's existence than it would be to deny God's involvement in this situation.
It's a scary and foreign situation for me to be in, and i'm thankful.
Journal Entry 16---
I know I will never be the same.
I know it will take a while for me to process all that has happened on the trip.
I know God has worked through this to shape me. So, I'm thankful. I'm thankful to be part of the body of Christ. Something is going on here. A movement is burgeoning. There is a people going against the flow of hopelessness, counter to the culture.
The language barrier has thrown me for a loop. It has caused me to wonder what kind of Christian teachings the children are receiving? What are they being taught? I'm almost positive it wouldn't jive with my theology because, I am pretentious. I am haughty. So what if the theology isn't "up to par" for me? Who am I, anyway?
That is what I have been left with from this trip- who am I? I have come to this conclusion...
I am one who belongs to God. Just like these people. We're all in the same boat. All in this together.
How could I possibly know the best way to tell these people of a God who loves them enough to come to their rescue? About a God that can break into their culture, speak to them, and mold their heart.
Theology, at this point, is irrelevant. It's irrelevant at most points, now that I think about it.
Simply because it is all about Jesus. Only Jesus can save us from our own little worlds, whatever our culture may be. And save us from our hopelessness. And Jesus is doing that everywhere.
The bottom line...Jesus saves. We have turned this into an overused cliche yet, it still remains the ultimate truth. All of our ideas, all of our mental concoctions and achievements, pale in comparison to this truth.
It has been beautiful to see Jesus at work. It has been powerful. Yes, the spirit is moving.