Day 26: Serving Works

In Bangkok the only houses without perimeter walls are slum shacks. Even the houses of the wealthy, in gated communities heavily populated by security guards, have high walls isolating each from the others. As foreigners we cannot own land, but if we could I would buy a home and tear out the yard walls, just to make a statement.

In classic urban style, those gated communities are quiet oases, peaceful islands set apart from the noise and dirt of the city, often adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. Their entrances are like portals to other worlds, where guards take your i.d., write down your license number and dismiss you with a snappy heel-clicking salute.

I am wired to think idealistically, and find everything from social injustice to environmental disrepair frustratingly unnecessary. For instance, there is massive wealth in Thailand; the latest megamall was recently opened, at a cost of US$ 1.5 billion. there is no reason why our daughters should have to resort to prostitution, or why the canal behind our apartment should smell like a sewer.

There are two ways to exist in this world: to withdraw from it or to stay in order to change it. Most people with means try to do both: living mostly withdrawn but with forays outside–perhaps to church, volunteering or politics, then retreat back to our forts. And indeed anyone who does charitable work will agree that every small bit helps. But we also know that if everyone jumped completely in rather than only part time, the world would be turned upside down.

As followers of Jesus withdrawal is not an option. We are to be the ones who jump in whether or not others join us. I wrote yesterday about Kay’s insight that “Jesus didn’t need to be God,” from Philippians 2:5-11. That text simply illustrates the only way God wants us to think: trust first, reward later. Give, and you will get. It’s counterintuitive even though everyone knows it actually works in principle. Kids are mean to each other until they get old enough to figure out that being nice to others brings reward. Back when we lived in Chicago, I never met a property owner wishing to not pay the large portion of property tax that went to the city’s extensive park system. When we take care of others, our needs get met.

Getting this principle across is one of the hardest obstacles we have had in working with the poor and broken. Poverty culture turns people into survivors, who often lie and manipulate in order to meet their needs, and who are able to very unkind to others. We have worked hard all year to make The Well a safer place, with fewer hurt people hurting each other, and have seen a lot of success.

We have noted though that many of those who have been most healed are ones that have seen our own sacrifice for them over the long term. Some have lived in our home; had us visit theirs when they were struggling. They’ve seen us work hard for others and know we live on only what we need. I don’t say this to say that we are special; it’s just so clear that this is what works. These who have seen our sacrifice and become healthy now tirelessly work by our side.

Maybe one day we’ll have a clean canal.

Day 25: Giving up God

This title is maybe a little click bait, but now that I have your attention….

When my friend Kevin Kane was in town a month ago, I invited him to interview a couple of women at The Well and write something about it. He interviewed Kay and Cream, two lovely women who have both been through a lot but are in a really good place.

Kevin told me that in his conversation with Kay he brought up Philippians 2, for a reason I don’t remember. That chapter has an amazing poetic summary of Paul’s understanding of Jesus, written to encourage his readers to similarly selfless thinking.

Paul’s language in verse 6 is a bit idiomatic so awkward to translate, but something like, “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped….” Kay read in Thai and then summarized it perfectly in English:

“Jesus didn’t need to be God.”

In monotheism the main idea that God is all-this and all-that leads people to think of bigness. And obviously the immensity of the universe and the count of hair strands on seven billion heads is staggering. But it is clear throughout the Bible that God is far more interested in our understanding the small part of his “omni-ness” more than the big. Not only are we unable to conceptually handle the big, but we turn it into a power issue, using monotheistic religious systems to control people.

In Jesus, God sets things straight. Power used to control others is meaningless, and that includes the display of power so great that simply by its use it demands allegiance. John, who spent about three years with Jesus and tells us he got a pretty good idea of His message, simply says, “God is love.” Power is simply a non-starter in John’s Gospel; in fact he rather shows Jesus as almost frustrated at the problem of not wanting attention due to power, only wanting people to know love.

This reality is very practical for we who focus on caring for people in need. The more we have worked with folks the slower we are to fix their problems. They see the power of our education, our high status as Americans with access to money, no different than the people who chased down Jesus in John 6, asking how to make free food.

Jesus didn’t need to be God. He wanted love. And the end of the story, Paul says in Philippians 2:10-11, is that He gets it, with every single living being acknowledging His bigness. But don’t think for a moment that He will ever be done with being small.

Merry Christmas!

Day 24: Sharing God With Us

For we who love following Jesus, his birth story not only doesn’t get old, but it gets more wondrous. The more we grow in connecting with others, loving to care for and serve them, and find new ones to “seek and save” (Luke 19:10), the more we enjoy thinking about this very cool scheme that God pulled off in sending His Son.

I’m behind, writing late Christmas day, and will have to catch up with posts 25-26 tomorrow. Yesterday was spent preparing then pulling off a community outreach event for Christmas in our nearly completed remodeled garden, with over 100 in attendance.

One thing that troubles us in working with the poor is how little they experience awe and wonder. Many have never experienced a mountain or a secluded beach. We started out planning this event hoping to share some of the wonder of Jesus, but we realized that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off for this very reason. Not knowing awe or reverence, folks just don’t keep their kids quiet, but just let them talk away even during a serious message. So we kept it a party atmosphere and did state this message:

  • Christmas is about Jesus.
  • Jesus is about love.
  • We want to love you because we follow Jesus.

As part of that message we were able to introduce our community center dream to folks from the community. We hope that to grow significantly during the next year.

Day 23: Put safety first in caring for people.

I’m trying to finish a year-end update on The Well. Here is a part of what it covers:

Thanks to advancement in understanding the workings of the brain, a major transition is happening in mental health science. We now understand fairly well how experience, beginning in early childhood, leads to changes in the brain and body that result in mental illness in adulthood, including addiction.

Here is a link sent to me the other day by my long-time good friend Tom McNally that summarizes this new paradigm:

Treating the results of childhood trauma is still far from a slam dunk in every case, but for us even working at the lay level with now higher-degreed specialists, this knowledge has been a game changer. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that this knowledge fits amazingly well with the the Gospel of Jesus.

Safety First

The number one insight that arises out of the trauma-based understanding of dysfunction is that fear causes disconnection. The parts of the brain disconnect from each other, and individuals disconnect from others. The first step to healing both these conditions lies in providing loving safety. This has become a primary paradigm at The Well.

Indeed, the Gospel itself is about safety. Jesus’ action makes us safe with God, and therefore we are able to be safe with each other. We are able to change from the pharisaic response to wrong, which thinks that it is the responsibility of leaders to correct others, to a model of simple fellowship, helping each other see our own wrongs as we share life together.

It’s not a feel-good false safety that simply relegates morality to personal choice. Instead it is a lifestyle of highest standard, not only protecting each other but others who may be vulnerable to our unintended harm, which Paul describes at length in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.

Indeed, we chose to emphasize safe care and communication all year in 2018, and we believe it has brought results, such as specifically it has opened women up to respond to Jesus, some of whom I have written about this month. One of the coolest things about it is it is such a simple paradigm, fairly easily measured. Are people feeling safe here? Not only clients and visitors, but fellow workers. We recommend it as a regular topic of concern for any church or organization.

Day 22: Why Men Need to Do This

I mentioned in Day 10: Learning to Wait that an alumni from 9 years ago got in touch recently. Today I chatted online with “Nat” for a while, and asked her if she had any goals for her future. I already knew the answer, but it was a way to get things started.

“I still can’t think about the future,” Nat replied. Not only does she have to support her own daughter, Nat told me, but four nieces and nephews whose parents are in jail. She also has to help support her parents. “Right now everyone at home depends on me as the oldest daughter.” It’s the sad, all-too-normal life of the young northeastern Thai woman.

Nat is bright, but with no diploma she has only one option for an income at the level she needs. She is also pretty and personable, so has earned a lot at that business. But it takes its toll, and has no future. She was only 17 when she was at The Well, had already been “working at night” and with us was hoping for a change, but family pressure forced her back. Now here she is with still no hope of something different.

We have met women who did well in the industry. These women usually don’t have a history of childhood trauma, and are able to make a calculated decision to get into this work, save money and get out. But for every one of those relatively fortunate women there are many who get stuck. Their costs shoot up, as they find themselves spending a good part of their high incomes just to alleviate stress. Their families, used to the extra funds, maintain pressure for more. Health problems arise. Some may “catch” foreign husbands, but between character and cultural issues, long-term relationship success is also spotty.

Hearing from Nat after 9 years was an answer to prayer. I had seen her potential back then, when she was a teen, but I also knew that everything was stacked against her. The news that came from time to time from a common acquaintance wasn’t good. My heart leaped when she contacted me. And my mind is now prayerfully working through possible options where she could perhaps change occupations but still get good pay, maybe the right kind of sales job, for instance.

Chatting of course can be convenient but slow, so I tried calling Nat but she didn’t pick up. “I’m sorry I can’t answer right now. I’m with a customer.”

I know this irony well. Thousands of men a day use women in this way, while a relatively tiny handful are working to help them (including our very generous donors). I didn’t even do very much–simply asked some questions, encouraged her for her hard work and commitment, and said I would be praying and looking for ways to help her situation. Not much, but it was enough for Nat to express strong gratitude. “I’m so discouraged and sometimes just want to tell someone,” she wrote. “I’m so thankful that today I was able to tell you.”