Mountains and Messes: We Need a Little of Both

Who doesn’t love being on the mountain top?  I suppose there are a few folks out there afraid of heights, but even if you don’t like them in the literal sense I’m guessing you like them in the figurative sense.

I confess I have a small obsession for these high places both literally and figuratively.

Some of my favorite memories growing up were watching magnificent storms roll in from 50+ miles away from the ranch at home; the photo above can’t do it justice.  Or drinking in the uninhibited views from my favorite Idaho peaks in the Seven Devils range or on top of Mount Borah.  Breathing in the thin air at the top of Cotopaxi in Ecuador or the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. Dangling my feet and peering over the crag on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

These mountain top moments represent the times I feel closest to my Creator, standing (or falling down) in awe of His wonder, power and majesty.  I find joy and perspective in those places. Conviction in purpose and calling. Divine energy.

I’m spoiled with frequent mountain top moments in Thailand.  Not so many literal ones in this tropical climate, but plenty of figurative ones to keep me energized in the morning.

They generally look something like:  Seeing street kids escape their heartbreaking reality for a moment as we play games and laugh together. Holding the dream-like gaze of a new friend as we talk about possibilities for her life outside the bar as customers come and go in the background. Walking and chatting with a couple of teenagers that have just learned the message of Christ for the first time and are overflowing with questions. Photographing the wedding of a student and watching the couple commit to raising their adorable daughter together. Busting up ground with a bunch of ragamuffin kids in the countryside as we plan out a new garden plot.

But then we leave those moments and face the reality of the hard stuff that follows.  The fact that those street kids that were able to escape for a moment will still have to sleep on the street and will probably get deported again soon. Walking with this new friend through the uphill battle of trying to leave this bar scene, peppered with disappointment and a system working against her. Discipling teenagers who have no healthy role models in their lives and who are only in our community a few months out of the year. Seeing the newly-wed couple walk through the difficulty of relationship and child-rearing, even in community, as they struggle with serious addictions and trust issues.

Off the mountain and into the valley we go.

The reality is, life is tough in the valley.  Brokenness and poverty – be it material, spiritual, relational, etc – are ugly and often seem unfixable.  Helping someone in such complex environments is like trying to catch a bar of soap in the shower. Or rather, trying to catch a bathtub full of bars of soap.

I confess I’m often tempted to run away to build a house on the mountain top.  I can better stomach brokenness and poverty from high up and far away, where I have clear and unobstructed perspective that God is bigger and more powerful than they are.  In other words, I would love to live for those first moments of hopefulness and avoid the messy aftermath that happens in reality.

A friend recently dropped one of those timely reality-checks on me as she reminded me that God didn’t create us to DWELL on the mountain top.  God created us for the valley.

The valley is messy, but it’s where He’s working.  The Kingdom is built when we step into others’ messes, when we walk people out of messes, and sometimes when we make messes that need to be created.  The mess of the valley is where He calls us to dwell.

Can you imagine a house on the top of Half Dome? No way.  For one, it’s crazy-dangerous.  And it’s not “real life.”  If I lived up there, not only would I likely get struck by lightening but I would quickly lose touch with the beauty and intricate complexity of what I was seeing below.  Part of the reason I like the mountain top is the joy of going back down and sharing what I saw, experienced and learned.

Why, then, in our spiritual lives do we always want to build a house on the mountain?

Look at Moses – my all-time favorite mountain man.  Moses met with God on the mountain. We all have the flannel board scene of the burning bush burned into our memory.  But how many of us remember that Moses had to go down from the mountain to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  In other words, he had to leave the mountain for a mess.  Fast forward to post-Red-Sea-parting and the Israelites freed from Egypt… God summoned Moses back up to the mountain again, this time to give him the Ten Commandments.  Did he stay up there this time?  Nope. Moses came down from the mountain and stepped into another enormous mess, carrying the power and presence of God to make history in the valley.

Imagine what would have happened if Moses had stayed up on the mountain?

In our case, what would happen if we left the conversation at “there’s hope for you” and then failed to walk with her through the mess of stepping into that hope?  What would happen if we simply handed over the photos of the beautiful wedding and failed to walk with them through the mess of relationship?  What would happen if we left the ragamuffins with this plot of cultivated soil without walking with them through the process of planting, tending and harvesting a crop?

I’m asking myself these questions and would and invite you to join in asking yourself as well.

How often do we live FOR those mountain top moments — those joyful moments of safety and security where we can just point to God at work and clap our hands — rather than live BY them as we step down and join God in His work amidst the mess of the valley?  What mess is God calling you into?

When we’re in the valley, how can we better treasure those mountain top moments?  How can we develop the discipline of “lifting our eyes up to the mountain” and be sustained by what we’ve seen there rather than just seeking out the next mountain top moment?

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Where does my help come from?”   – Psalm 121:1 

ICM: Changing the Face of Poverty

International Care Ministries in the Philippines.  Awesome people, amazing mission, brilliantly executed.

I’ve been a fan of ICM — an organization dedicated to changing the face of poverty the Philippines — since I attended a presentation in a DC conference room over a year ago. I was quickly enamored by their model of ministry and their well-constructed strategy designed to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor on a holistic level.

Naturally, when an invitation came to spend a week with them to learn more about their programs and management in the Philippines with the backing of one of my generous supporters, I leapt at the chance.  I spent a week traveling around the country with a group of ICM staff, supporters, potential partners, and a handful of other missionaries from Cambodia and Indonesia.  I made some great like-minded and like-hearted friends, and came back to Thailand re-energized, loaded with ideas and equipped with some concrete tools to integrate into our work here.

ICM has developed a “values, health and livelihood” curriculum which they deliver through three- or six-month training programs, administered in partnership with local pastors reaching the poorest of the poor in their communities.

I geeked out a bit when we dove into their livelihood curriculum which includes teaching vermiculture (worms!) and vegetable gardening or container farming (in coke bottles or old tires) for homes without space for a garden.  We visited the demonstration farms but also saw their practices being employed in rural villages, fishing communities and slum communities alike. (The second photo below was a model for slum community projects.) I took the liberty of asking the local kids whether or not they liked the vegetables they were growing, to which I got a resounding “yes.”

ICM also operates preschools for those with limited or no access to educational opportunities; they currently have 80 preschools around the country serving 2,000 kids and their families. We not only got to spend some time doing activities with the kids but attended several graduation ceremonies; each consisting of about 300 confident five-year-olds running around in caps and gowns.  (And I thought Thai kids were cute…)

They have also recently started a malnourished children feeding program and run a number of other “mercy” programs designed to provide special assistance to individuals and families in need.  These range from funding special medical cases for poor individuals facing serious illness to operating a children’s shelter, and from partnering in slum reconstruction to providing economic opportunities for at-risk women.

Malnourished children program

Slum Community Reconstruction

It was awe-inspiring to see ICM’s presence and hear and see firsthand stories of their impact; they are an organization on mission to change the face of poverty in the Philippines, and they’re actually doing it.  They have a solid staff, strategy driven management with Kingdom vision.  I can’t think of a better model to learn from.

On a personal level, I admit I was a little worried my “squirrel” syndrome would take over when I got there and I wouldn’t want to come home to Thailand.  That wasn’t the case at all.   Though I certainly fell in love with the adorable kids and was quite jealous of the fact that the Philippines is a) already predominantly Christian and b) largely English-speaking… I found that I itched to get back to Thailand where the kids and families weren’t just new faces to me, but I knew their stories.  And I’m not merely a visitor to them, I’m now auntie Cori.  Despite the language barrier here (which is getting easier by the day) and the relative spiritual darkness we face, I would still choose Thailand any day of the week.  It’s home for me for now.

So… now my challenge is to apply some of the good stuff I learned.

Next up:  Stories from Buriram…