Saturday, July 5, 2008

The God of the Custard Apple

They look a little bit like fat, green pinecones. When ripe, they are very fragile and easily break open to unveil dozens of hard, black, inedible seeds. As their name suggests, the gooey, white flesh is smooth and creamy.

I'm back at home now, trying to get my body to figure out what time it is. My last week in Thailand was such a blessing; I joined two Malaysians, an American, and a Thai pastor and translator to host an English camp in Thabklor, four hours north of Bangkok. We were a ragamuffin group, and none of us knew exactly what was going on, but God tremendously blessed our efforts. We rotated teaching Grades 4-6 and Grades 7-9 in the mornings and afternoons in a Buddhist school for the area's lower class. No Christians live within an hour's drive of this town. We were privileged to be God's first ambassadors to this area. We prayed with them, played with them, taught them songs about God, taught them English through teaching about health principles, and fell in love with them.

From the time we arrived at the school in the morning, to the time when we walked home, the children would not stop talking to us (with their five phrases of English), touching us, shaking our hands, and hugging us. I had always thought Thais were not a touchy people, but these kids defied that! They were especially intrigued by my blonde hair.

The kids could be rowdy and rambunctious, shouting out the songs as loud as they could on all manner of clashing notes. Their parents are mainly drunkards at night, and one got a light beating one night when we brought her home late after doing house visits.

"But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd." Matthew 9:36 Now that we have left them behind, all we can do is pray for them. Who will teach these precious children about God's love now? Who will come to tell them about Jesus' free gift of salvation? Who will water and nourish these seeds we've planted? We can only pray for them now.

As they touched us, I thought about how Jesus interacted with children. Sometimes they swarmed so thick I could barely breathe! "Lord, please help them feel a current of Your love flowing through us as they touch us!"

I am honored God chose me to be a first representative of Him to these precious children. Perhaps when another Christian comes by, they will remember our group, and be interested in learning more about God. Thanks for your prayers and support!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

God's fingerprints...

The Thais are a beautiful, humble, friendly people.

My purpose in Bangkok was to share Jesus and be a blessing to the people. God gave me many friends, like these two "tour guides" who took me site-seeing one day.

She came to learn English from one of our centers. We went to her home and caught her doing her gardening work.

The Grand Palace lives up to its name.

"Chang" are a most beloved animal throughout Thailand.

I'm glad I serve a God Who's much more alive than my two companions here.

Teaching the kids at the Thonburi English Center/Church Plant.

Thanks, God.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The God of the Dragonfruit

To me, they are reminiscent of kiwis in taste, but not quite as flavorful. Their incredible color, however, is what really makes these fruits fun to eat. They grow on cactus-type plants, and the fruits have a pink and green skin with a few fin-like outgrowths. The flesh is either white or brilliant maroon dotted with dozens of little black seeds.

On Sabbath after spending a week at the Nonthonburi church plant teaching English, and visiting some of the neighbors and students, I worshipped with the pastor and teacher who run the center. The little sanctuary was on the third floor of their narrow apartment. I am continually amazed at how many people are packed into this city. Four of us worshipped together. The work is slow in Bangkok because to be Thai is to be Buddhists, and they often risk being shunned if they express interest. God is working here, however.

This past weekend I had to leave Thailand since I only had a 30 day visa. My dear friend, Grace, is a student missionary in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, so the Lord allowed me to go there to spend time with her and her fellow workers.
Ahhh... I never realized what a country girl I am until I've spent a month and a half in the city buried in the city. Instead of being restricted to breathing deeply near every concreted-surrounded tree or gazing longingly at the few parks I've driven past, I was able to be immersed in nature again.

We traveled four hours outside the capital to Vang Vien - a popular place for adventurous European backpackers. High limestone mountains cloaked in wispy clouds jutted from the earth. A brown swirling river cut through a few of those mountains. Networks of caves pierced their insides. We took kayak/canoe things down the river one day, paddling next to fishermen, traditional bamboo-woven houses, and the majestic mountains.

On Sabbath we went caving, slipping and sliding in all the water and slime, praying the tight spot where the water was up to our next and the ceiling was nearly touching our heads wouldn't fill up with water by the time we turned around.

On Sunday we took a stroll through the rice paddies, to the annoyance of many boney cows in our way. I was refreshed. I was revived. A Lao lady literally attacked my muscles during my $5 traditional Lao massage.

We rode in the back of a pickup truck on the four hour drive back with a chicken, several giant bundles of bananas, and various Lao travelers. Black smoke billowed out of the bus in front of us straight into our lungs for a good portion of the way.

My time here in southeast Asia is so short, and just as I start building relationships with people, I am uprooted and moved to the next center. As I get attached to people easily, this has been difficult, because I want to hang onto them. How can I bring them with me to the kingdom of Heaven after such a short time together? What is my purpose here in Thailand again?

"Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us." 2 Corinthians 5:20 Yes, this is my purpose, to accurately represent Christ to people who've never experienced Him before. The task is daunting; I have been shown time and time again that my character is far from perfectly reflecting Christ's. I can't bring them with me to church each week, I can't convince them to risk estrangement from their families by converting, I can't change their hearts. All I can do is be an ambassador, to plant a seed in their heart and to reflect the love of a God who is waiting for them with open arms.

Dragonfruit's taste is not what makes me eat them. It's their irresistable color.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The God of the Durian

Rotten eggs, sewage waste, putrid raw onions, full babies’ diapers. All these words can be used to describe the most peculiar of fruits – durian. Durian is called the king’s fruit, but by the look and smell of the thing, it’s a wonder humans ever figured out it was ok to eat! Many buses don’t allow them, because even when carefully packaged, their odor has a way of making its presence known. Thais are very proud of this fruit, and many ask me if I like it. I respond with “Mmm… durian is a special fruit, isn’t it?” I can tolerate its soft fleshy casing and smooth custard filling only in minute amounts.

            Last week I stayed at Hope for Bangkok’s English school/church plant Udom Suk, in the heart of the city. It’s a few doors down from the walled-off slums on one side, and a brothel on the other. Poor little church plant; it’s really struggling. I lived there at the center with the Thai pastor and his family, and a Filipino helper/teacher.

            Wet means clean to southeast Asians, therefore TP, napkins, and papertowels are extremely hard to come by. I spent the nights sweltering on the ceramic tile floor in 13-year-old Fah’s third-story bedroom. I’ve never actually wondered if my brain was getting so hot that my proteins might be starting to denature!

            During the weekdays I’ve helped teach English and visit some neighbors. I teach the kids English, they teach me Thai. As the Thai language is based on intonation and therefore each sound has five different ways to be accented, I’m struggling.

            On the weekends I’ve visited some of Bangkok’s splendors. One day a Thai pastor took me to the Grand Palace. Gold leafing sparkles on the spires and statues, elaborate paintings grace various walls. The intricate and colorful designs that filled every nook and cranny of the grounds testify of the value Buddhists place on beauty.

            This past week I’ve been at another English school/church plant – Nonthonburi. The 9:00AM class of 40-something year old ladies have captured my heart. They banter and laugh and are so much fun to be around. On Wednesday a few of them rented a van to take me sight-seeing. Food is important to Thais, therefore, we ate continuously. Everywhere we went, they each found different foods to buy, and insisted I tried everything – from seaweed-flavored potato chips to coconut juice to strange rice-based pastries.

They paid for everything, including entrance fees, which are over 5 times more for farangs (foreigners). They knew little English, but bought me trinkets, shielded me from oncoming motorcycles, took pictures with me, and showered me with love. The Thai pastor warned me not to pay for anything, but to thankfully accept the things they do and buy for me. To refuse would greatly offend. Since I hate to feel beholden to anyone, this is extremely difficult for me, as I feel there is nothing I can do or give that could repay them. In response to this comment, the Thai pastor asked, “What? And you call yourself a Christian? That’s what grace is!”

Simply put, durian stinks. And frankly, so do I. The Thais have been a far greater blessing to me than I have been to them. I’ve really been pondering lately what it takes for someone to become a Christian, and how these ladies could be so kind and loving and not know Jesus personally. My most convincing arguments could never win someone to Jesus. My best attempts to weave Jesus into English lessons could never intrigue anyone enough to make them totally revamp their life. It’s not me to do the transforming, it’s God. He only asks that I am willing to obey. Durian’s smell could never convince anyone to eat it. Once a taste for it is cultivated, however, it becomes a treasured delicacy.

"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." Isaiah 64:6

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The God of the Mangosteen

Mangosteen are called the queen’s fruit here in Thailand. They are small and round and purple, with four round green leaves circling a green stem on top. A thick fibrous shell encases soft, slimy white wedges of pure juicy sweetness. They are rich and delicious and in season now.

Last week I spent learning from Dr. Nick, the only American missionary doctor in Thailand. That man is the golden standard of missionary doctors; he’s labored for the Lord in many different countries for nearly 20 years. To practice medicine in Thailand, he had to take his boards in Thai! I’ve tried my best to soak up all the knowledge I can from him. My brain feels like a super-saturated sponge!

The Thais are special people, for sure. They are very kind and friendly, valuing humility and community. To convey acknowledgment, the head is bowed, with the hands held in a praying position pressed close to the nose. This is accompanied by a “Sa wa dee kah!” The city of Bangkok never sleeps. Since many families have just one small room to live in, everyone seems to be out on the streets at night. They eat in little spurts throughout the day, buying food from the plethora of food vendors selling fried things, roasting meat, fruits, or other concoctions. I haven’t seen many overweight Thais, yet, however.

Bangkok is an assault on the senses. The air is heavy with pollution billowing out of roaring cargo trucks and buses. Smells of roasting meat, frying dough, roaming dogs, and city trash fill my nostrils. As soon as I step outside, I become a self-sufficient sweat factory, and feel like I need to go back in and take yet another shower.

The curly-cue Thai script graces each store front and street sign. Most Thais, unfortunately don’t know English, despite the fact they’ve studied it every single year in school. Bright colored taxis zip through the always jam-packed roads. Motorcycles dart in between cars, and each time I cross the road, I narrowly miss becoming roadkill.

The king’s face looks down from each place of business, and some kind of shrine to Buddha or the spirits quietly whispers of the souls that need to hear the Good News.

As if it’s not hot enough outside, Thais love to fill their mouths with burning infernos of chili peppers. When ordering food at the cafeteria, I always question, “Spicy?” to which they answer, “No.” After the first bite, I notice the little red chilies.

Yesterday I went on a mobile clinic to a prison in the former capital, Ayutthaya. Our team of twenty, including six dentists, one eye doctor, and one physician, pulled hundreds of teeth, gave out dozens of glasses, and dispensed lots of meds. Since I can’t speak to them myself, I wanted to touch them, and requested to take blood pressures and pulses. Praise God, I had a wonderful Thai lady who knew English sitting next to me, who helped me pray with dozens of the men who came through.

One-third of the world has no contact with Christians. Did we peck away at that one-third a little yesterday? I’d never spoken the name of Jesus to someone who’d never heard it before. The magnitude of this privilege sends shivers down my spine.

"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." 1 Peter 2:9

Beneath the mangosteen's thick fibrous exterior, lies a succulent treasure. Beneath their reserved, respectful exterior lies hearts that are in desperate need of God's healing power.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The God of the Rambutan

I honestly don't know what God was thinking when He created the rambutan. This little fruit looks rather intimidating at first glance; it's bright red body is covered in soft green spikes, giving it the appearance of a fruity version of a porcupine. Once I got past my initial surprise at the harsh exterior, the locals laughed at my childish attempts to rip it open. They twisted it apart for me, revealing a gooshey white ball inside. Then they popped the ball in their mouth, spat out the seed, and reached for another one.

I'd been praying and researching a place to go for this summer back in the mission field ever since I left Africa last May! Despite my most valient attempts to plan everything out, God refused to show me what He wanted me to do until less than two weeks ago. After many dim days of pleading with God to use me this summer, He opened the doors for me to go to Thailand to help with Hope for Bangkok, a church planting initiative. Even though I'm already here, I still don't know just what all I'm going to be doing. Oy! This whole experience has really stretched my faith.

Driving, waiting, and flying to get to Thailand took 30 grueling hours. As I was traveling alone and didn't even really know where I was going once I arrived in Bangkok, my only hope was Pastor Venn's promise to pick me up in the airport.

Though my plane arrived half an hour early, by the time I got my bags and passed through customs, I was standing at "Arrivals" on time. Quite a number of people stood there holding signs, but none of them looked American, and none of them held a sign reading, "Sarah Belensky."

This was exactly what I had hoped would NOT happen. So I walked up and down the hall, trying not to look anxious or lost. Maybe they smelled it on me, however, for I was bombarded by many inquiries of, "Where are you going, Miss?," in the hopes to get me to purchase their taxi service.

Here I was, all by myself in the Bangkok airport. Honestly, I thought, what on earth can I do? Get myself a hotel? Find the next plane ticket home? After 45 minutes of wandering around, I decided to page Pastor Venn. That effort, however, bore no fruit. Neither did calling Southern's 1-800 number. Keeping constant communion with my Heavenly Father was the only thing that kept me from withering into a pool of tears and despair. I foolishly had no cell phone, no international calling card, no phone number for Pastor Venn, and no address for where I should be going. Thoughts of the foolishness of my whole plan to come over here started to creep in.

Just as I lifted my head Heavenward to ask what suggestion God had for me then, two Americans passed me. Hope against hope, was it them? But they kept on walking past me.

Determined, I followed them, and praise God, it was Pastor Venn and his wife, who apologized for being late. Whew!

This experience reminded me of the Christian journey. Our life on earth can sometimes feel like we've been sitting on a plane for the last 29 hours. The hope that Jesus will be taking us home can sustain us through this time. To the world, however, our hope seems like foolishness, like waiting for snow to fall on Bangkok (it literally feels like I'm in a sauna all the time). The time is coming when we'll be waiting in the airport, when God's presence seems far off, a time when the world will mock us and try their best to take us on a taxi ride to somewhere down under. Perhaps we'll even have to stand alone. Don't loose hope, though, He's coming soon; He keeps His promises.

The Venns showered me with tastes of Heaven - a clean, spacious place to live, plenty of food, books, and more. I am so thankful to God for them.

I don't know why God created the rambutan. I don't know why I waited an hour alone in the Bangkok airport. I don't know why He does what He does, but I do know:

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways," says the Lord. "For as the Heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9

Oh, by the way, rambutan are kind of tasty, in a slimy sort of way.