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Talking Thai Politics

Last Thursday evening, after we hosted our weekly discipleship meeting, I was sitting on our sofa with the windows open and overheard a man talking on his phone.  Our streets are pretty narrow, so even from across the way I could understand most of what he said.  His conversation centered on what many people here are talking about these days – the political unrest that has flared up once again during the last few months.  Our neighbors talk about it.  My friends on the basketball court ask me what I think about it.  People gathering in coffee shops discuss it.  Even our employees gather during their break and whisper about the current situation.  If you haven’t read about it in the news, there are current protests being staged in Bangkok this week and have been for sometime.  As of last Monday, these same protesters have begun their efforts to “shutdown Bangkok” by building barricades and gathering at seven major intersections in the heart of the city.  With a population of over 14 million in Bangkok and the surrounding area, the protests are sure to cause problems, including worsening the already snarling traffic.

It’s understandable that activities like this would cause the conversations of people in any country to turn towards politics, but it’s even more so for a place like Thailand.  Since 1932, when a military coup changed Thailand from a absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, there have been 18 other attempted or successful coups and 30 different constitutions.  The current situation looks eerily similar to events that happened before the last coup in 2006, and there are fears that the violence that often occurs with protests of this nature (most recently in 2010, when 92 people died during a military crackdown) will happen again.  Already eight people have died since November when these current protesters took to the streets.  The underlying tensions that have plagued Thailand for the last 8 years or so—tensions that fall primarily along class lines—have yet to dissipate. Thus, many people think that the poorer, rural population will not stand by idly if another coup ousts their democratically elected government again.  Even words like “civil war” and “succession” have been thrown around in recent weeks.

Since I’ve been in Thailand, I don’t remember any other time when politics have so dominated the topics of conversation as in the last few weeks.  You can sense the anxiety that people have over the current protests.  For many people, the protests have a direct impact on their lives.  Our friends Na and Kat are worried because their husbands, who are policemen, have been sent to Bangkok to help with crowd control for a second time.  Several police officers from Phayao were injured during the protests back in December.  The general population realizes that the political stability of Thailand is in the balance and the repercussions of what happens over the next few weeks could have a significant impact on the future of the country.  What I sense is that  Thailand is at a crossroads, and there is anxiety because two different groups are fighting over what direction the country should take.

So, I think it is interesting and significant to compare the conversations I hear on the streets these days to the conversations that occurred last Thursday evening in our living room.  Once a week our church gathers at someone’s house to discuss how we can become better followers of Jesus.  Most often this involves reflecting on the previous week’s “homework” we assigned ourselves.  Last week our homework was to read through a gospel of our choice, reading at least a few chapters each day.  We discussed how the discipline of being in the Word can help us to know and become more like God.  We do this every week, and our conversations rarely, if ever, turn towards the current political situation.  Instead, we focus on things like how we can live more simply, be more generous, serve the poor, be more patient, be more disciplined, pray more, spend time in solitude more and many other ways we can live like Jesus.  And we don’t just talk about these things but try to put them into practice each week.

To many of our Thai friends in Phayao, it might seem odd that we would gather for an hour each week to discuss such things.  It might seem especially odd that we don’t address the current political situation and spend time offering our opinions on what is going on in Bangkok.  A new visitor to our group might easily walk away from one of our meetings and think that our Christian religion had nothing to do with politics and with what is going on in Thailand.  But that would not be the case.  Our weekly meetings, indeed our Christian faith, is very much concerned about politics, and about the well being of Thailand and the Thai people.  The things we discuss and the homework we do each week are directly related to our efforts to be involved in the politics of Thailand.  At the same time, it’s a very different approach to politics than what the protesters in Bangkok and most of our Thai friends are taking.  For one thing, our primary allegiance is not to the Thai nation, the Thai king, a particular political party or even a particular political system, such as democracy.  Also, our tactics do not involve staging protests, trying to shutdown large cities, demonizing those with whom we don’t agree, posting vitriolic words on social media and using violence to get our way.  Rather, our allegiance is to Jesus Christ, and our tactics involve faithfully serving those around us, especially in small ways, with the love of God.  The more we become like Jesus the better we are able to do this.  Our political opinion is that when people in Thailand give their allegiance to Jesus above all other allegiances Thailand will become a better place.

I admit it is not always easy to remember this.  Ning and I have often been frustrated in the last few weeks about the political situation and frustrated about what we’ve read in the news and on Facebook.  We’ve even found ourselves becoming too agitated and talking about things we think should happen with the protests in Bangkok but that would not necessarily be reflective of our faith in Jesus.  Honestly, it is because the tactics of the church, the painstakingly slow and seemingly insignificant things we do, seem to pale in comparison to the ways of the powerful in Thailand.  It is thus very tempting to forfeit the way of the cross for something easier and more efficient.

However, even as the political tensions in Thailand continue to worsen, my hope is that we are a faithful witnesses to the Thai people.  We want to consistently proclaim that worshipping Jesus as Lord is the best path to reform Thailand.  Even if the situation worsens to the point that violence and instability come to Phayao I pray our church remains faithful.  It’s one thing to hold on to your faith in Jesus when political instability is hundreds of miles away but much more difficult when your livelihood is affected by it.

Recently a friend asked me what I thought about the situation in Bangkok.  My response was two-fold.  I said, “As an American, I hope democracy is maintained and elections are allowed to take place.”  Then I said, “As a Christian, however, I don’t think it matters which side wins because I only trust in Jesus to make Thailand better.”

I think next time I will just answer the latter.

Update:  Earlier this week there were two grenade attacks on protesters in Bangkok, with one person killed and over 50 injured.  Things have become more violent in Bangkok, and there are fears that things will only escalate in the coming weeks.  Please pray for God to bring a peaceful resolution to the current tensions.  Having said that, the situation in Phayao is completely normal.  I want to assure you that our family is safe. 

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Experiments

For the last several month our church has been meeting on Thursday nights together to talk about ways that we can become more like Jesus.  This time is not a typical Bible study where we go through a particular book of the Bible or focus on a certain topic.  Instead, we use these times for reflection and discussion about our experiences.  While Bible study is important and something that we do together as a church, I am convinced that what leads to real transformation in church communities is not more Bible study, but more intentional practices that allow our bodies and minds to experience a different way of life.  Our goal is to behave and live more like Jesus.  So, it makes since that what leads to changed behavior is not a change in ideas, but actually a change…in behavior.  Our current habits and practices that keep us from becoming more like Jesus did not form because we read a book or because a certain idea led us to take on those behaviors.  Rather, we continue our current habits and ways of life because they have been formed over time through engaging in a world that draws us into those patterns of behavior.  The only way to break those habits and change our behaviors is to intentionally engage in different kinds of practices that force us to do things other that what we have always done.

 

Our Thursday evening meetings are usually a time to introduce a new “experiment” that we will engage in as a community and a time to reflect on the experiments that we are doing from previous weeks.  For example, in one recent experiment we all agreed to memorize Matthew 5:3-11.   We spent each morning that week reciting these verses from memory.  The point of the exercise was not to test our memories but to open up space for God to work in our lives through the discipline of memorizing scripture and reciting it daily.  When we came together to reflect on our week, we talked about how difficult it was to get out of our normal routines and make space for memorizing the verses, but also how we benefitted from doing it.  In another experiment, we all agreed to go and visit someone who is from a lower socio-economic class than ourselves and to engage them in conversation.  We wanted to make an effort to break down barriers that often separate us from other people.  The point was to push ourselves to do things we know are important and good to do but don’t often do because of our current habits.  Thus, our Thursday meeting times don’t necessarily give us any new knowledge but instead provide a venue for engaging in and reflecting on spiritual disciplines.  I’ve found that having a group of friends that is committed to doing these practices together makes them easier to do.

 

More recently, our church has been focusing on the spiritual discipline of simplicity.  Richard Foster says that the biggest spiritual problem in the world today is distraction.  We live in a world where there is little space to engage in those things that draw us closer to God (i.e. prayer, meditation) because we are constantly distracted by the things around us.  It is only by simplifying our lives and getting rid of those distractions that we can find the space we need to connect to God.  Over the last few weeks we have participated in several different experiments to help us simplify our lives.  Part of simplicity is being grateful for what we already have.  Thus, for one week, we spent each morning and each evening making a list of 20 different things that we are thankful for.  The experiment was intended to help develop in us a posture of gratitude towards God and to realize that every breath that we have is a gift.

 

Another experiment was intended to help us get rid of the distraction of technology.  For one week, we agreed to not use any technology–no texting, no internet surfing, no social media, no games, no t.v., no music, etc.–other than what was necessary, such as checking email twice a day and only making voice calls for important things.  For people who are constantly connected to internet via our smart phones, it was difficult not to depend on those devices like we normally do, even for a week. We realized several things after this experiment.  For one, we agreed that we all waste a lot of time using our phones for things that have very little benefit.  Whether it was surfing the internet, checking Facebook or playing games, we realized that many of the things we spent so much time on were not because we really valued those things but because they had simply become habits for us.  Our addiction to technology actually distracted us from things we would rather do.  We enjoyed having more time for other things during that week, including more time for sleep, prayer, talking with our spouses, playing with our kids and even having more time simply to think.  Thus, even though it was hard to be without technology for a week, the experiment helped us learn things about ourselves and change our behaviors in ways that a Bible study cannot do.

 

As we engage in these short experiments our hope is for them to lead to lasting changes in our lives, not simply be week-long experiences that we leave behind.  Though we will all go back to using technology to some extent, no of us will continue to use it in the same ways as before.  We have all decided to find ways to cut back on our technology use in order to free up more time for things we think are more important.  The goal for these experiments and our reflection together on them is so that we can be transformed into people who live more like Jesus.  I’m thankful to be a part of a church that is committed to growing together in our faith so we can serve God more fully in Phayao.

 

Our Thai Teammate

I couldn’t convince Ning to write a post about some of the things that she does as a member of our team and church but I do want to highlight what life in Phayao is like for her.  So, I’ll just write about her experiences from my perspective instead.

Ning is unique in that she is the only Thai person on our team.  As such, she is our “go to” person for a lot of things that, frankly, are just easier for her to do since she is a native of Thailand.  Even though our team has over six years of experience in Thailand, we still (and never will completely) do not grasp all the complexities of Thai culture that affect our team’s decisions about ministry.  Ning’s input has helped us avoid cultural faux pas that might hurt our ability to communicate clearly about the gospel to our Thai friends.  Other times we have great ideas that seem pretty straightforward from our American perspectives but need more thought and adjustment once Ning shares her perspective.  When it comes to practical things, like dealing with the local government and legal matters with the restaurant, Ning often gets stuck taking care of them because it is so much easier for her.  Ning is also a better communicator than the rest of us because of her cultural background and because she speaks the northern Thai dialect.  Thus, when we really want to make sure we communicate something important, we often get Ning to speak for us.  Often this means Ning will lead discussions with our employees at The Brick Oven.  At Na’s baptism in March we had Ning ask for Na’s confession so that Na could give her statement of faith in the northern dialect.  Also, our efforts to make our Sunday worship reflect Thai cultural practices have relied on Ning’s input.  Whether it’s teaching us how to bow properly, buying the right kinds of flowers for different holidays or leading us in the Lord’s prayer in the northern Thai language, Ning has been integral in shaping what happens in our worship on Sunday mornings.

A lot of Ning’s ministry, however, happens right in our neighborhood. Ning spends most of her time at home with our two boys, so she has a lot of opportunities to interact with the people living near us.  Often neighbors come over during the day just to talk and end up sharing about their lives and struggles.  Our neighbors know that Ning is a good listener and will offer encouraging words.  Ning also spends a lot of time with Na, who comes to help with the housework each week.  As an older Christian Ning has helped disciple Na in her new faith.  Recently Ning invited Na to go visit a handicapped neighbor of ours.  They took some fried bananas and spent time visiting with this woman who never gets to leave the house.  Through both actions and words, Ning teaches Na what being a Christian looks like in daily life.  Ning often cooks meals for our friends and neighbors.  She also loves to bake and invites the neighborhood kids to come and help make cakes and pies.  As most Thai households do not own an oven, it is a new and exciting experience for them.  I also think kids enjoy the special attention that Ning gives them.  Our neighbors love Ning and realize that she is different from most other Thai people.  More and more I think they realize it is her faith in Jesus that makes her different.

Being the only Thai person on this mission team is not without it’s challenges however.  For one thing, Ning is not a native to Phayao, and the adjustment to living in a smaller town that she is unfamiliar with has still been a difficult one.  Though she is Thai, Ning has had to work hard to make Phayao feel like home.  She misses the comforts of living in Texas and even Chiang Mai just like the rest of us do.  Ning often feels like an outsider here because of her faith, which makes it hard to connect to her Buddhist friends and neighbors on a deep level.  A further challenge stems from the fact that she is married to  me.  People assume that the only reason Ning is a Christian is because she is married to a “farang” or westerner.  The assumption is that a Thai person would never convert from Buddhism to another religion if it were not because of some ulterior motive.  If fact, even our neighbors still assume that Ning is a Christian because she is my wife.  Just recently one neighbor was looking at some of our old photos and came across Ning’s baptism pictures.  She asked about the meaning of the baptism.  After Ning explained about baptism the next questions were, “Can Christians marry Buddhists? Did you have to become a Christian in order to marry Ryan?”  This was probably the 4th or 5th time that Ning has answered these questions from this same neighbor, yet each time Ning has to explain that she became a Christian before she even met me.  Even though Ning is Thai, her marriage to a foreigner often makes it harder for her testimony to be heard.

Having me as a husband and being on a team with Americans presents other challenges to Ning as well.  During our first year here, a repair man that came to our house asked her why we chose to live in Phayao instead of Pattaya, a city infamous for its sex tourism.  The implication in his question was obvious.  Ning always has to be self-conscious about how others look at her when she is with me.  On a recent date in Chiang Rai, Ning did not want me to park on a certain street that was lined with bars and pubs because walking down that street with me might have given the wrong impression.  Also, sometimes people assume that Ning is wealthy and has an easy life because she is married to me.  Other times her presence on a team of foreigners gives her a lower status.  On one team retreat our van driver assumed that Ning was simply the nanny for our team’s children and subsequently accused her of stealing a missing DVD.  And while our white skin often draws attention and special treatment from our Thai friends, Ning is sometimes ignored and treated differently by those same people because she is too normal.

Despite these challenges, Ning has handled being the lone Thai missionary very well.  Her life is a testimony and challenge to our Thai friends who think that they cannot become Christians because of their nationality.  She can talk about faith in Jesus in ways that connect to Thai people more easily than me.  It’s been good for me and our team to watch and learn from Ning as she serves as a missionary in her own country.  As her husband I look forward to seeing how God will continue to use her to bless the people of Phayao.

Starting Small

It’s amazing, even after living in Thailand for six-plus years already, that you can still find yourself in new situations that are surprising and unexpected more often than not.  One such situation happened recently when our church had the opportunity to help a local family repair their leaking roof.

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We were made aware of this family and their needs by our friend Muey at Rak Thai Foundation, with whom we have partnered on several other projects.  I am always impressed by Muey, who works tirelessly helping people with HIV/AIDS and people who have Tuberculosis.  Muey always goes above and beyond the focus of her job, which emphasizes helping HIV and TB patients, and finds other groups of people in need that she can help.  Often these extra projects that Muey takes on are not included in the budget for Rak Thai, and she must find time after normal working hours to attend to them.  One recent project she started was a “Love of Health Club.”  She made contacts in several neighborhoods here in Phayao and began hosting monthly activities to promote healthy habits, like exercise and eating well, along with providing information about different ailments that commonly affect the elderly and how to avoid/treat them.  Muey and other volunteers also visit the elderly “shut-ins” in these neighborhoods and take fruit and snacks as a way to encourage them.  Many of these elderly also have significant health problems so Muey is also able to make sure they are getting the medical care they need.  One home she visited included a family of three, of which the mother suffers from blindness and kidney failure due to diabetes.  The house they live in is older and made of wood, sits up high on stilts (a traditional Thai way of building houses) and has a zinc tile roof.  The roof, however, had been badly damaged by falling trees in January and had several large holes and dozens of smaller ones that allowed rain water to flood their home.  Aside from that, the whole back half of the house, which includes the kitchen, is unusable because the wooden beams and floor boards are nearly rotted through.  Muey said it was one of the worst situations she had seen since they began visiting people.

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The family, who have income from a small rice field they own, had put in requests with the local and provincial governments seeking funds to replace their roof.  The local officials responded by saying the request was “in process”, while the social welfare office could only offer a small amount towards the repairs.  Other groups had come by and taken pictures of the damage but none of them have come back to offer any help.  They have been living with a leaky roof for over 6 months.  When Muey learned of their situation, she immediately thought of our church and asked if we would be willing to help.  Before we committed to helping, Derran and I went by to meet the family and see what we could do.  During our visit, in which we were joined by several volunteers from Rak Thai, a news anchor from the local cable channel also showed up.  She came to take pictures and interview the family about their situation.  She explained that they would run a story on the news and request help through the television broadcast.  I couldn’t help but think, Is this just another group coming to take pictures and leave to never be heard from again?  The family explained to all of us that they had a friend who could help repair the roof, but they just did not have the funds to buy materials.

Our church met that week to discuss what, if anything, we could do to help.  Once we realized that we had enough money from our tithing and that no one else seemed to be helping this family, we decided to buy the shingles and help repair the roof.  Last Thursday we scheduled a time to replace the roof and thought we might be joined by a few friends of the family to help us.  When we arrived that morning, there were nearly 50 people already at the house!  The whole neighborhood and some of the local government heard that the roof was being fixed so they came out to help.  The old shingles were nearly all torn off before we arrived and a dozen or so women were busy preparing food for all the volunteers.  Other neighbors were passing out ice cream and drinks to the workers.  Those who weren’t on the roof were busy cutting down old trees and trimming bushes in the family’s overgrown yard.  The city even sent out a backhoe and a flat-bed truck to help clear away the brush.  It was amazing to see so many people pitch in to help this one family.  My expectations of a long day of hard labor with a few others were completely off.  By noon, the new roof was put on and the yard had been cleaned up.  After eating lunch together, everyone pretty much went back to their own activities.

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At first, I was a little disappointed that so many people came out to help.  I wanted this to be our service, our church’s chance to be seen and known, our faith to be on display for people to see.  When it turned out that we weren’t really needed that much and that others also had a heart to help, I felt like it was a missed opportunity because instead of being at the center of things, we were just a small part of something bigger.  After having some time to reflect though, I am ok with just being a small part of this already small act of service.  Honestly, with as many people who were there that day, each could have given a few dollars and paid for all the materials too.  We weren’t indispensable.  So, in way, our role was simply to be the catalyst that got this family their roof repaired.  Had we not offered to help, maybe it would have been several more months before someone got around to doing something about it.  Being a spark to get something going is actually probably an appropriate metaphor for what role our church does well.  The truth is that we are small, have limited knowledge and resources, and can’t possibly effect all the change that God wants to happen in Phayao by ourselves.  My guess is that there’s probably not a church in any context, in the U.S. or abroad, that can do it all without partnering with others.  God’s kingdom is much bigger than the church and its activities.  God is at work in others’ lives even before we arrive and will continue to work even after we are gone.  Instead, God is using our small efforts and turning them into bigger things.  Whether it be picking up a few trash piles that eventually leads to the whole city taking responsibility, encouraging one woman in her work that leads to hundreds of kids learning how to protect themselves from sexual abuse and human trafficking, or buying a few roofing tiles that leads to a whole neighborhood pouring out love on a poor family, God is taking our small efforts and using them to make a big impact.  For that, I am thankful and hopeful.

June 2013 Update

Aggies Visit Phayao

Kelly and Sara Davidson and a group of seven Aggies for Christ students from the Texas A&M Church of Christ in College Station, TX came to visit us for three days during their 6-week trip through Thailand.  Phayao was the first stop on the Aggies’ itinerary this year, and we put them to work despite their jet lag.  This year we asked the group to help paint the walls at our pizza restaurant.  Our walls were previously off-white, and we thought the atmosphere could use a little color.  We brightened up our dining area with yellow, orange and blue walls and used red for the kitchen area.  We also plan to paint the Brick Oven logo on the back wall at a later time.  Since the Aggies could only paint when the restaurant was closed, it meant several early mornings and late nights up at the restaurant.  We think the walls look great and are thankful for the time and money that the Aggies saved us by painting them for us.  During the non-painting times, the Aggies helped watch our kids while the adults on our team were able to work and also spend time relaxing with our teammates.  Since none of us have family in Phayao, it is rare that we get to spend time together as a team to have fun together.  The visit from the Aggies was refreshing for us, and we are thankful to have hosted them for a third time in the nearly four years that we have been here.

TBO new colors

Picnics in the Park

Each Saturday evening our church hosts a picnic at the park right by the lake.  The lake area is where Phayao people go to exercise, play and spend time with family and friends.  We like to take our bicycles, sports equipment and picnic mats and invite our friends to meet there and hang out together.  Lane, who recently took the training wheels off his bike, loves to ride around the paved pavilion with the other kids.  Knox, who recently learned to walk, likes to show off his new-found ability while we cheer him on.  We have made new friends with families who have brought their kids to play at the lake, and some of the kids who live around there have come to expect us every Saturday.  On a few occasions I have brought baskets and chairs to play “chair ball,” a game similar to basketball except a person holding a laundry basket and standing on a chair acts as the hoop.  The kids have a great time playing together while the adults sit on mats eating and talking.  I love how our church is consistent in being a presence at the park each week.  In some ways, our church is becoming known as “that group that plays at the park.”  We hope that the fun atmosphere we provide draws others into to our community and opens doors for them to know Jesus.  I think the nature of ministry in Phayao requires us to consistently and faithfully be present in the midst of the larger Phayao community.  We are thankful for the relationships that have been strengthened through these picnics and for the new relationships that will be formed.

Thursday Discipleship Times

I recently read through a book called “Practicing the Way of Jesus” by Mark Scandrette.  The book really sparked my thoughts about what discipleship can and should look like.  Often our churches focus too much on cognitive knowledge when it comes to discipling someone that we forget that to be a disciple also, and maybe primarily, involves practices that transform us to be more like Jesus.  Moreover, this kind of discipleship takes place best when it is done in a community where Christians can encourage one another and reflect on what it means to follow Jesus in their particular context.  In the book the author suggests that a group of Christians engage in “experiments” that push the group to practice a certain Christian value or virtue.  The real transformation happens when the community engages in practices together and then reflects on those experiences.  We designated Thursday evenings as our time to reflect on our experiences each week.  We recently spent six weeks focusing on becoming better witnesses for Jesus. During those  six weeks, we engaged in different “experiments” that pushed us to be better at evangelism.  Currently, we are focusing on meditating on scripture as a form of spiritual discipline.  Life together as a body of believers is much more than what happens on Sunday mornings and demands that we be intentional in training ourselves to become more like Christ.  We look forward to seeing how God changes us through these weekly times together.

Our Family

It seems that there have been a lot of changes in our family over the last few months.  Lane really enjoys school and is learning to write both Thai and English letters.  He now looks forward to doing his homework assignments and likes to show us how he can draw pictures and trace letters.  Lane also recently learned to ride his bike, so I bought a bike of my own to ride with him in the neighborhood.  When his legs get tired Lane prefers to sit on the back of mine and ride with me instead.  Knox finally started walking at almost 19 months in age, though he still crawls most of the time at this point.  He loves to walk around the house and chase mommy or daddy, but he absolutely hates to wear shoes.  We often wake to the voice of Knox on the baby monitor saying his ABC’s or counting to ten.  He doesn’t quite get all the letters or numbers yet, but it is fun to see how much he is learning.  Ning, Lane, Knox and I recently took a family vacation with Ning’s parents, sister and brother-in-law to Rayong, a beach town just southeast of Bangkok.  It was our first vacation with Ning’s family, and we had fun simply being together, relaxing on the beach and eating fresh seafood.  The highlight for Ning was getting to eat all the durian (a warm and odorous tropical fruit with the texture of ice cream) that she could handle.  She was disappointed when we returned to Phayao, where durian is hard to find and much more expensive.  With baseball season in full swing I try to catch as many Rangers’ games as I can, which usually means the iPad is propped up on the bathroom counter while I take a shower in the mornings.  In July, we will celebrate Ning’s mom’s 61st birthday and Ning’s brother’s wedding.

A few months ago our team began to notice something interesting at our pizza restaurant.  On several occasions one of us would walk in and see a watered-down cup of Coca-Cola, with a straw, resting on a shelf behind the coffee bar.  At first we just thought that maybe it belonged to one of the employees who had forgotten about it and left it on the shelf.  One of us would usually take the cup down and put it in the sink to be washed.  However, after seeing the same cup on the same shelf several days in a row, we realized that the employees were intentionally placing the cup on the shelf.  The Coca-Cola was meant to be an offering to the jaow ti, or protective spirit, residing in the restaurant.  Most Thais believe that each building or house has a spirit who resides in it.  These spirits are beneficial in that they offer protection to those who live and work in these buildings.  In order to procure the benefice of these spirits, Thais will offer gifts, such as food, drinks, flowers and incense sticks as symbols of honor and gratitude to the spirit.  Most buildings have a miniature house-like structure out front that serves as the place where these offerings are made, though offerings can be made inside on a specially designated shelf or on any raised surface.

What struck us about our employees doing this is that in the 18 months or so that we had been open we had never once noticed the employees offer a gift to the jaow ti.  Curious as to the reasons for the change, we asked the employees about it.  They explained that, while we were gone several days that month for a team retreat, they heard strange noises coming from upstairs on several occasions and were scared that it might be a ghost.  The girls realized that they had never offered anything to the jaow ti so that it would protect them.  Out of their fear of ghosts they decided to start offering a cup of Coca-Cola each day in order to honor the jaow ti and receive its protection.  My teammates and I talk often about how it seems that Thais will reach out for any power source they can find in order feel secure from danger and seek improvement in their life situations.  Thai Buddhists are typically not exclusive in their faith, and will pray to and worship Chinese gods, Hindu gods, famous Buddhist monks, spiritual beings from Thai folklore and even Jesus, alongside the Buddha.  Instead of trusting in the Buddha alone, Thais are always open to alternative power sources.  This tendency to “cover all your bases” comes from, in part I think, the fact that Thailand, like most places in the world, is more prone to death and insecurity than so-called developed countries.  With sub-par health care, a corrupt government, a lack of education and an economy where many people survive on day-to-day pay, death and struggle are seen as inevitable, a given in life.  So, why not seek any power you can that might offer more security and protection from the unavoidable forces of suffering and death?  In the minds of most Thais, it certainly can’t hurt and, at the least, supplicating spiritual beings for help makes them feel a little more safe even if they can’t be certain it provides any added protection.

While people in Thailand and other “developing” or “third world” countries view death and suffering as unavoidable, those in wealthy countries in the West, particularly the United States, see death and suffering as something avoidable to a large extent, and we even pride ourselves on being able to do this without the help of any supernatural forces.  The whole conversation of “national security” that seems to dominate much of U.S. domestic and foreign policy is just a projection of what we all want as individuals: security, comfort, safety.  We not only believe that suffering, and at least untimely death, can be avoided, but also much of our time, energy and resources are aimed at doing just that.  For the most part, we are successful at doing this, or at least think that we should be.  So, for Thai people, death and suffering is often accepted, while for those of us in the U.S., death and suffering often comes as a shock because it rattles our faith in our ability to provide for our own security.

These differences became more apparent to me recently during the Boston marathon attack in April.  My facebook and twitter feeds were bombarded with news about the attack, including posts with links to the latest updates on what happened and commentary from people expressing sympathy, outrage and fear about terrorism.  In the attack, 3 people died and over 200 were injured.  A similar incident took place in March of last year in Yala, Thailand when radical Islamic insurgents set off bombs that killed 14 and wounded hundreds of others.  Several more bombings have since occurred in southern Thailand, including one last week.  In all, since 2004, over 5,000 people have died because of violence in southern Thailand.  Yet, the response of Thai people to violence in their own country is not nearly as loud as in the U.S.  Rarely are these bombings mentioned on social media and they never come up in conversation with my friends here in Phayao.  Unless you watched the news on television, you could easily not realize that violence had occurred.  I think the different reactions in these two countries is not just because violence and tragedy occur regularly in Thailand while in the U.S. they are rare.  Certainly, there is a higher rate of death from violence and natural disasters in the U.S. than in Thailand.  So, what makes Thais and Americans react so differently to such situations?  Or, a better question may be: Why do reactions in the U.S. to the violent deaths that occur daily on the streets of inner cities differ so starkly from reactions to incidents such as school shootings, tornados and a terrorist attack at a sporting event?

I think part of the answer to both questions is that Americans, especially those who are in the middle to upper classes, think that they have control over their safety and security.  To avoid violence, we make sure we live in the “good” neighborhoods on the right side of town and install security systems in our homes.  We use our wealth to buy insurance for emergencies and plan for retirement.  Our access to top-notch medical care, new technology and the fact that we live in the country with the strongest military in the world makes us feel that we are in control of our own well being.  There is no sense of needing to depend on supernatural beings or luck in order to live securely and comfortably.  Thus, when death and suffering occur in those places we thought were secure (i.e., sporting events, movie theaters and elementary schools), it rattles us because we begin to question how much control we actually have over our own lives.

In Thailand and other countries with similar economic situations, there is not a strong sense of having control over one’s own security.  Death and suffering are unavoidable, and Thais have an almost fatalistic outlook on life.  Bombings and other tragedies are not topics of conversation around the water cooler or online; they are just the normal occurrences of life.  And while this drives Thais to seek protection from the supernatural, I do not get the sense that most Thais think this improves their actual security and well-being significantly.  I think that their willingness to seek the patronage of multiple beings, whether they be jaow ti or other spirits, is an indication that there is a lack of trust in these beings to actually protect them from suffering.  Thus, it is better to seek as many different sources of power as possible to increase chances that perhaps one of them is effective.

It would be easy for missionaries to present God to Thai Buddhists as the ultimate and most powerful jaow ti, or patron spirit, who alone has real power to protect them from suffering and death.  Our task would simply be to persuade Thais to trust in God for protection instead of other spirits.  However, I do not think talking about God in this way would be consistent with the reality of suffering and death, which is that it occurs, even when we think we have the ability to avoid it.  It is also not faithful to the message of the gospel, which is that God’s plan for defeating suffering and death was to enter into it, not protect God’s self from it.  Jesus defeated death because he willingly experienced it himself.  Thus, the much more difficult task is to persuade Thais that security in God comes from imitating Jesus in this way.  Our task is to persuade them that they can enter into suffering and death without fear of its consequences because of what Jesus has done.  We want to show them, moreover, that the God who suffers with humanity is worthy to be worshipped and honored.  So, I hope that our Thai friends will continue to offer Coca-Cola, flowers and food as a way to show honor–but that they would do so to Jesus, trusting that he is bringing about a new creation where all will have security and well-being.

Ning and I were so blessed to have Jeff and Melissa Danchak visit us in Phayao a few weeks ago.  The Danchaks serve as our liaisons to the missions committee at our supporting congregation in Irving, TX.  I asked them to share their reflections after spending a week in Thailand.  I hope you enjoy reading about our ministry from a different perspective.  

Well, we survived the crossing of the International Date Line and are finally getting back to Dallas, Tx time!  Ryan thought by now, Jeff & I may be coherent enough to share some reflections on our trip to Thailand.  Let’s see if that is the case!

Thailand truly is a beautiful country flowing with iced coffees, cheap massages, and a guarantee that the sun will set every day of the year at 6:00 p.m.  The time of the year of our visit was the Thai New Year celebration, called Songkran.  It was indeed a fun time to visit, as everything shut down for three days, and everyone had a big water fight all over the city.  I believe the Thai people got a particular kick out of dousing this little white girl with ice cold water.  We had fun at the pizza restaurant dumping water on our Thai friends and getting drenched by the loads of people passing by in the backs of trucks.  I have to admit, the dangling electrical wires that permeated the city made me a little nervous during the water fights, but the Thai people didn’t seem too concerned!  It was a great time.

I, Melissa, had never had the opportunity to take a mission trip before, so this was a new experience for me.  One of the things that surprised me was how technology has enabled our missionaries to stay connected with the people in their home country.  With the use of Apple TV, Ryan and Ning can stay current with the DFW local news and watch all the Rangers games live, while Lane has access to all the American cartoons.  Also, the Vonage Voice over IP system allows them to make inexpensive phone calls to the states to stay in touch with their families.  And, if you have an iPhone or iPad, you can iMessage Ryan and Ning as easily as you would your next door neighbor.  It’s really a wonderful blessing for them to be able to stay close to those back home.  I would encourage our church family to use these means to encourage and support our missionaries.

In the midst of the site seeing, water fighting, and pizza restaurant cleaning, Jeff and I got a chance to experience Thai culture, talk to Ryan and Ning’s mission team, and to observe the struggles of this mission field.  The primary thing that we learned was how closely intertwined being Thai is with being Buddhist.  In America, people can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc., but we all still consider each other Americans.  Not so in Thailand.  Buddhism runs so deep in this land that it is at the very essence of being Thai.  Converting from Buddhism means that you are no longer viewed by your fellow citizens as a Thai person.  In fact, we met a Thai lady who had become a Muslim, and the people in the community refer to her only as Muslim, not Thai.  And trust me, being Thai and being a part of the group is paramount to these people.  They are proud of their heritage, and they are a very inclusive people.  It is very important in this culture to be a part of the group.  No one wants to be left out, and they do not want to leave anyone out.  For example, when someone hosts a party and invites you to come, they are even happier if you bring along others with you.  The more, the merrier.  Therefore, if one decides to leave Buddhism, they are choosing to leave the group and their identity as a Thai person.  One of the missionaries on their team, Haley, shared with us about building a relationship with and ministering to one of her former neighbors.  This lady came to church regularly and seemed to be genuinely interested in what they were teaching, but in time, the pull of the culture won over and drew her away from attending church.  Haley is still ministering to her, but it will take time.  It is essential that the Binkleys and their team show Thai people that when they leave Buddhism, they are leaving it to join a larger fellowship of the body of Christ.

Another cultural obstacle to spreading the word in this nation is that the Thai people have a very high regard for the elderly.  This is a wonderful quality, and one America would be wise to adopt.  However, it does make it difficult to witness to them, because it is disrespectful to try to teach or correct your elders.  These are just a few of the many challenges of ministering in this mission field.

So, the growth of the church here has been slow.  Sometimes it is easy as supporters back at home to question why missionaries abroad are not achieving the numerical growth we feel they should be.  I know I did.  It took me entering the field myself to truly understand the love and dedication it takes on the part of these men and women to spend their lives trying to reach a people for Jesus who so desperately need to experience his grace and mercy.  After all, Jesus called us simply to go where people need to hear the message.  Three years later, they have Na as a new member in their fellowship.  One soul, but if you ask Ryan and Ning, even if she remains the only one, it would have been worth it.  We are not responsible for the increase, He is, and I believe He will be faithful.

Another thing that struck us on our trip was how empty a religion Buddhism is. In Thailand, the worship of Buddha is based upon making “merit” in order to avoid suffering in this life and the next.  People attend the temples regularly to ring bells, pour oil on candles, say chants, and offer gifts in order to make enough merit that Buddha will bless them by keeping suffering out of their life.  How do you know if you’ve earned enough merit?  I guess if you don’t have suffering in your life, which means nobody can make enough merit.  What a sad and empty way to live.  Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly.  In this world, we will have suffering, we know that.  But we can take heart, because He has overcome the world.  We have true and deep joy in this life and the next because we have Jesus.  Oh, that the Thai people will come to know that and want it.  It is such a richer life!

Ryan, Ning and their team have done a wonderful job of studying Thai culture and trying to adapt their style of worship to one that the people can relate with, much as we have done with our worship at Christ Church.  Because Thai people are used to bowing and burning incense, they are teaching them to do these things in reverence to the one True God.  In fact, it is a very biblical practice that somehow got lost in our Western culture.  It was a unique and wonderful experience to bow before God as a group to show Him the honor He is due.

There are many more things we learned and experienced, but these are the things that made the biggest impression on us that we wanted to share with others.  More than anything, we see the importance of our prayers for this ministry and for the encouragement that we can give to our missionaries from home.  Most of us cannot go out into a foreign field like this, but we can all offer support and love to those that do.