Re-reading Jesus

I mentioned the other day in this post that a few years ago I started thinking more about the feeling side of Jesus. We can only get at it by inference, but the more I have read and reread the Gospel accounts, the more I see subtextual clues that there was a lot more going on than the static, flat-affect Jesus of most movie portrayals. And in looking at these clues I’ve been finding some pretty cool and helpful insights.

The reason I’ve looked at this so much is that having decided to live as close as I can to the way Jesus lived, I find it extremely helpful to try to get inside his head as much as possible. What did he think about? What was his motivation in each situation?

John’s account in particular is fascinating, because it has all the elements of story, including an arc with reversals and a protagonist with a single desire. John points out that he has chosen a tiny fraction of events in constructing his plot. It isn‘t the perfect movie script, but close, just needing a few visual tweaks. For example, my movie of John would add a brief cut back to Nicodemus, sitting dumbfounded and speechless, to close out the scene.

A key question then that I wonder about is Jesus’ identity and self-awareness. Just how much did he understood about himself, not only as he grew and developed but as he started out in his ministry? Only Luke, who claims to have done his research, refers to Jesus’ childhood at all. But all Luke says is that the kid grew strong and wise, “and the grace of God was on him.” Luke also writes the funny story of Jesus’ parents losing him for three days, then finding him at the temple talking theology with the big guys, only to have Jesus act surprised at Mom and Dad freaking out. The Son of God unsurprisingly had a high IQ, but he was also a normal kid.

But just when did it start to dawn on Jesus that he was in fact the very Son of God? Certainly Mary, by Luke’s account a brilliantly deep thinker, would have told Jesus every detail of his birth story–including her own insights and emotions. And like any normal kid, Jesus would have been fascinated. ”Mommy, tell me again about….” Or, “What was it like when…?” But when did it all come together? Who knows.

And then there’s the whole dying part. We know from John 2 that Jesus had an idea early on: when challenged about going berserk at the temple, he cryptically says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” But John talks as if the disciples didn’t actually figure out the meaning of that statement until after Jesus’ resurrection. Did perhaps Jesus himself not fully comprehend it either at the time, since John doesn’t note him providing any explanation? Hard to say.

Here is one that struck me just the other day: Jesus never explained why he preferred to call himself “the Son of Man”. Traditional thinking is that it is a reference to a messianic vision in Daniel 7, where Daniel sees “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.” It is a reasonable explanation especially since Jesus appears to reference that text in his trial before the Sanhedrin. But living cross-culturally makes me wonder if there is something much simpler going on.

I can’t fully become Thai. There is a lengthy path to citizenship, but it would take way more effort than the few hours we have to spend each year renewing our visas. But even if we were to do that, we know we could never be fully Thai. We think differently. But at the same time we like to claim a Thai identity. When people ask me where I’m from, I answer “Bangkok”, with a smile. I know they will ask where are you really from, but I always want people to know that this is home. We don’t “go home” to the U.S.–we “visit”. When I talk to Thai people about the problems we are concerned about here, particularly the exploitation of the vulnerable, I ask permission to speak as a Thai person. And I deeply appreciate that it is always granted.

What hit me recently is that perhaps that Jesus wanted the same thing. He knew he was different, but his humanity was something he was proud of. Becoming human was not his job, but his honor. “I‘m Son of Man. I’m on the team.”

The implication for what we do is obvious. Not only are we more effective when we love people out of honor rather than condescension, but it is way more fun and joyful. We lose our conditions, those prerequisites to our love that we might tell ourselves we don’t have but in fact we do. We grow more patient and appreciative of cultural differences that previously annoyed us. In working with people in need, we think less about their slowness to change and more about their beauty as God’s children.

In any case, whether I am right or not on this point, I don’t want to mislead folks into detailed speculative argument. I just find thoughts and ideas like this helpful, so I write mainly in hope that it might stir you to read or reread the story of Jesus this season with fresh eyes. It’s great stuff. Fascinating guy.

Loving People to Jesus

We just began opening our Connect Center during the evenings, and announced free help with English. We’re not offering classes, just informal and flexible help for people who want to learn.

On Monday a few women in their 30’s came. One said she had walked past our door many times, but was afraid to come in. “I was afraid you would make me change my religion.” We laughed, thanked her for coming, and reassured her that wouldn’t happen.

Don’t we want her to trust in Jesus? Of course we do. But we have found it much better to wait for God to draw people to himself than for us to try to drag them into the Kingdom. It’s way more fun and nobody gets hurt by misplaced zeal. I wrote about it in this post a year ago. Then I was referring to the process I went through of learning how to not fix people struggling in life. But it also applies to this new visitor.

We’re obviously just getting to know her, but it appears that she’s doing just fine: a married housewife with two children in a nearby private school. There is a good chance that she has none of the kinds of burdens of the majority of women we work with.

But whether she has deep unmet needs or not, we have seen repeatedly that the Father likes to draw people to Jesus. Our part is just to love them and wait for that to happen. We “share our faith” not by trying to convince, but by simply talking naturally about God’s work in our lives; mostly things we’re praying about and people in need we’re praying for and helping. Of course we offer to pray for folks in that waiting process, something they nearly always welcome.

Last night Sunisa stopped by briefly as our little English group of three adults and three junior high kids was talking, and I was I introduced her to everyone. When we first met, Sunisa was proud in the identity of her faith, not interested in changing. In her case there was a deep life need that we were able to help with, but even so she now says that at the time she just assumed that our love for her was our simply being good professionals. But God started appearing to her and showing her visions, and she began see that more was going on. The whole process of choosing to follow Jesus took the better part of two years. All we did was keep loving her.

I told Sunisa about this visitor’s hesitancy. She smiled, knowingly.

Finding, Not Fixing

One thing we really appreciate about the West is the strong tradition of activism. People really want to get involved; they really want to help.

Of course there can be mixed motives in anything. Our desire to do good can be easily mixed with a need for significance or a thirst for adventure. Mission trip organizers usually build in at least one sightseeing day. But the fact that Western people care so much and want to help others is a wonderful thing.

Another challenge: there is a tendency in activism to become focused more on principles and action than the actual people we want to help. And in our focus on solving problems we naturally move to trying to fix people. But when we work with broken people we begin to discover that trying to fix them is sometimes the worst, most hurtful thing we can do, and the biggest and most difficult lesson to learn is how to stop.

The focus on fixing or solving also leaves many paralyzed. They want to help but don’t see themselves with the necessary ability or know-how. They are afraid to reach out to folks in need, thinking they won’t know what to say or do.

But the reality is that only God can fix people, and he simply wants us to watch it happen. We see in the example of Jesus, from birth to his entire ministry, that what God wants is for us to show up. Go meet people, love them for their beauty as God’s creation, and respond to what happens. They’re out there, primed and ready for transformation, just waiting for us to take our seat and watch the miracle.

For the last two months we have been witnessing “Su” transform. The change has been rather sudden and drastic.

We have known Su, 33, for a few years since a former member of The Well brought her to meet us. She spent a few days with the program at that time, but was too unmanageable to stick around. We also started learning that she was actively “sending kids”, the Thai euphemism for prostituting young women, usually teens.

So we were praying for her and discussing the problem among our team. One day Ann, our social service director and intake manager, confidently announced to me, “I want to give Su another chance, and invite her to spend a trial week. Give her a choice to stop ‘sending kids’, along with a clear warning that we will involve the law if she continues.”

I agreed, but cautioned that we had at least one teen already in the program that she had “sent”. But all said they would be fine, not at all frightened, so the next Monday Su came for her first day.

It was like a switch was ready to turn on. Her very first week, Su started expressing gratefully a new understanding of love, God’s way. She came into my office one day, excited, wanting to tell me all about it. “Do you know why we love you so much?” I asked. “It’s because God made us all and wants us to love each other,” she replied with a shy grin. A few days later she popped in again. “I just learned about Psalm 23!” She then sat down and proceeded to walk through each scene by memory, relating it to herself. “This is how God cares for me!”

I find myself thinking often about Luke 19:9, where Jesus exclaims with joy about Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” What Jesus did that day was find a guy who was ready to change, but was simply waiting on someone to give him permission to flip the switch. That’s all we have done with Su. Now we find ourselves seeing a kind, caring heart that was living out of desperation. “I have been a prostitute for 18 years,” she told me. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”

Now Su is actively telling others, including those she used to “send” about her new life in Jesus. Last Friday she hosted a gathering of kids in her small one-room home, led by an outreach team from The Well.

Do Like Me

For most of my life I missed a key part of Jesus’ “Upper Room Discourse” in John 13-16. The scene take place shortly before Jesus is arrested and, the next day, crucified. The writer, whom we can reasonably guess is indeed John, Jesus’ disciple, has let us know that Jesus clearly knew what was about to happen.

Looking back now it seems silly, but for years it never really occurred to me to think about how one might feel looking ahead to an excruciatingly torturous death the next day. It would kind of weigh on the mood. John’s portrayal also suggests that for all the injury that Jesus knew he would endure, the insult would hurt even worse.

As I write this at 8:30pm, Mook and her older cousin Sai are trying to visit a young teen in an apartment complex we know well. The teen and her friend came to church on Sunday, and connected with Mook. Then that night she was in a fight with “Daeng”, a seventeen-year-old that we have tried to work with for a few years, an abandoned girl who has learned the toughness of the streets and has resisted all of our attempts to help. Someone took a video, and it got sent to me. Daeng easily overpowered the younger girl. I’m told it was over a boy.

In the video the young teen got up right away, but today she said she was vomiting all day, so Mook was concerned. She requested my permission to close the coffee shop a little early to go check.

Mook, 20, knows the ways of the street as well. She grew up in Bangkok’s largest slum, abandoned by her mother. We first met Mook at the beginning of 2018, when a friend brought her to The Well, and she spent a few months in our program. She had been involved in a lot of risky behavior and had a baby son. But Mook showed the spark of a good and teachable heart. She left The Well in good standing, getting a job running a small coffee shop near where her son lived with his father’s family.

Judy and I visited the coffee shop and were impressed with Mook’s work. Seeing a possible fit, I began talking with Mook about a deal: she wanted to finish high school equivalency and university, and we needed someone with barista expertise to help get our community center off the ground. We could provide the schedule flexibility and adequate pay to support her son. Mook did rejoin us in February, and began her first college classes last month.

We also got a bonus. I have a particular burden for tough, hopeless cases, and especially teens. However I am obviously limited in what I can personally do. Here, when people see an older man talking to a much younger woman, they think one thing. I am well-known in that neighborhood as “Pa Jim”, and I am extra careful to safeguard a clean reputation.

A few women have gotten involved a bit, but all have either been limited by family responsibilities or busy caring for other types of needs, of which of there are many. Mook is the first one who is actually stepping out on her own with teen girls, for which I am beyond grateful. Sai only recently came to us at Mook’s invitation, and amazed by the transformation she sees in Mook, has joined right in.

I overlooked Jesus’ mood in that upper room simply because the tone of his speaking was in no way dark or depressing. Instead John shows us someone who, about to lay down his life for dearly loved friends, was overcome with the meaning of it all. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” John writes, “he loved them to the end.” Jesus didn’t wash their feet merely to teach them a final lesson in humility. He was in awe, honored at the privilege of serving and yes, dying for these men.

This scene was the story ending that was the beginning. From waking up helpless in a manger to this, it all made sense now. I can imagine Jesus wrestling with his Father at times: “Why did you pick these goofheads?” For years he had been preparing them to do just like him, faithful, and full of faith. It wasn’t pretty, with impending treason and a best friend’s denial, but he knew they were going to come through. This was joy that could lift a heart even so heavy.

I happily do not have a torturous death before me, but I get it. Judy and I aren’t looking to retire, but it is beyond reassuring to know that we now could, and the way and work of Jesus will continue. The blessing of giving is incomparable to the joy of seeing people follow our example, as we follow Christ’s. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does everything becomes worthwhile.

Mook, whose name aptly means “pearl”, is reaching out on her own now, empathically caring for these lost younger ones. She just messaged me that this girl’s last period was in August. So it’s probably not a head injury–she is pregnant, at age 13.

Grateful to Go

The Christmas story is just as much about going as about giving. We all know why giving gets the spotlight. In God’s way of working, the two are twins–you don’t have one without the other. So to try to balance things a bit, I like to focus on going.

I’ve been getting to know “K”, 26, our newest member of The Well. K has identified male as a reaction to years of repeated abuse by men since childhood. God gave her model-quality facial features; often a major liability in a culture with rampant male sex addiction.

K is a veteran sex worker, following her mother’s footsteps. When K was 21 her mother brought her to Chinatown, where women working the streets lead men into dingy, smelly buildings.

Four years ago, a trusted friend told K that she could make way more money for the same effort in Bahrain. All she needed was a passport, and to show up at the airport. K didn’t even ask how much was the plane ticket.

It was the typical debt-bondage trafficking scheme that preys on ignorance and powerlessness. Three years later an Arab man pitied K and paid her way back. She returned empty-handed, after serving hundreds of men at all hours, day or night.

Bahrain has been a well-known sex-trafficking destination. K saw many dozens of other Thai women. Her handlers were all Thai women.

K ended up with us because of going. A team of workers and volunteers went out and found her waiting for customers in Chinatown. Over multiple visits they began earning K’s trust. She is now grateful and hopeful about finally being safe and accepted. K is clearly bright, thankfully resilient in spite of her trauma, and is excited about where this could lead. In asking about her interests, K brought up jewelrymaking. Her eyes lit up when I told her about our studio, currently undergoing remodeling.

This and so many other stories make Judy and I continually thankful that God chose us to “go”, Jesus-style, and show a great light to people walking in darkness. We have had enough life experiences to verify that nothing comes within ten country miles of helping lead someone out of a life of hopelessness. Ahh, but wait. Without the generous giving of so many, none of this would have happened. Judy and I would be working in the U.S., and K would be waiting for her next customer.

This is Our Season

After writing 31 blog posts last December I fell silent for 334 days. I find it hard to balance writing with day-to-day work. We have so many stories to tell that it’s hard to pick. I start on one, don’t quite finish, and then another happens. Then there is my big-picture wiring that constantly sees connections. Cori Wittman calls it my popcorn brain. I try to be careful not to ramble when I talk, but often fail and have to apologize. This same tendency makes it difficult to keep focus when writing.

I wasn’t really thinking to write daily posts again this December. There is a lot going on. The Well in a major ramp-up phase, with our team launching new outreaches and partnerships. One initiative is social media, where we hope to release dozens of short video clips aimed at Thai audiences over the next year. Our daughter Jaimie and fiancé, Bryce, will be spending 12 days here working on initial projects this month.

But something just happened that made me change my mind. Last Thursday and Friday I interviewed 6 women that we are in the process of bringing into The Well. All are between 20 and 26, and all have really rough stories of abuse and exploitation. Most experienced sexual abuse at home. One was sold at age two, to a family who raised her as a slave. She has no ID and no way to reach her birth family. One was trafficked, in a typical debt-bondage scheme, and held as a sexual slave for 3 years in a middle-eastern country. Each precious woman spoke with sincere appreciation about experiencing unconditional acceptance for the first time in her life. And as I always do, I explained to each what a great honor it is to be able to serve her.

So I just thought I have to do it again. I keep up with Western news, so saw lots of headlines about Black Friday deals. And I am reminded, as I am every year, that this should be our season, not Amazon’s or Walmart’s. Nothing better explains our whole motivation for our being here than the little baby Jesus–the immense, powerful God getting tiny and poor among lost and broken people. That is what we live and breathe daily.

So I’m claiming it. This is our time of year, time for us to humbly but firmly point people to the real deal. What we have to share is extremely good and right. It deserves an audience.

So if I can pull it off, I will be writing 30 more posts about how we see this Jesus. Last year I pretty much wrote random stories, as they happened in real time. This year I intend to do the same thing, but more directly connected to the advent/Christmas story. My hope is that you might find some new insights, grow in love with Jesus yourself, and maybe make some priority changes of your own.