Tear Down the Walls

I find myself weeping during the worship time when I visit visit most churches, especially larger ones in the U.S. I cannot help it. It’s only sadness, not anger or resentment. Everything is so nice: a beautifully decorated hall filled with good-looking people happily singing praise to God along with a tight band, a sweet sound system and mood lighting. But my mind flashes to pictures of women dancing exposed to gawking sex addicts, or waiting on the streets; to men sitting on the ground sharing a bottle, or to children wondering if they are about to get hit or go hungry. Most people in the room look so healthy and capable. I think about how much they could help work like ours. Or I imagine how excited some folks I know would be to visit such a pleasant environment.

These churches are doing great things. They are not being hypocritical. They care for hurting people. But this model of church does not resemble Jesus’ life in the slightest. And as a result, people are left out.

According to John, the New Testament gives us only get a tiny snippet of what Jesus did. So if the goal was to have the Son of Man hang out long enough so a few people could write about him, so then we could get together and listen to someone talk about it, a few weeks would have been enough. But clearly God was after something much more with this incarnation thing. This was not a hit-and-run mission trip.

Currently we are working out how to help a family of 5 kids whose parents abandon them for gambling binges, sometimes for 2 to 3 days. The oldest is 11, the youngest less than one year. We met them through Su, the pimp-turned-preacher that I have been writing so much about. She and has been watching out for the kids when parents are gone, having them sleep in her single-room storefront, along with her husband and 3 kids.

Tonight we went to the family’s one-room apartment, and found the kids more-or-less huddled in a corner. The room was cluttered with clothes, about 2/3 hanging on rails and 1/3 strewn along one wall. A broken riding toy stood on its end. They were trying to console the baby who looked to be having teething discomfort. The oldest, a boy, was sitting/lying against a wall, looking depressed.

I have met the parents but because of their absence have not yet had an opportunity to talk with them at length. I asked Su if she thought this was gambling addiction or foolish thinking, i.e. did they believe they could actually have an income this way. She said she thought it was more foolish thinking. But she said she asked the mom how she felt about leaving her kids like this. “I don’t feel anything,” the mom had said. Later Su said that the dad has at least a couple of beers every night when home. Obviously it’s addiction, plain and simple.

I had given Su some money for their needs, so we left them with Su having them promise to come sleep with her tonight.

It is problems like this that cause problems for big beautiful churches. People like these don’t fit well. They may be too unmanageable to even show up, or when they do they are likely to feel too inferior to return. They will drain far more resources than they bring. They also complicate the message. They don’t cleanly move from a salvation commitment into growth, but instead struggle with repeated relapse and compounding shame. They may be dangerous, pulling others into their hurt.

People have been talking about “church without walls” for decades, and a lot of folks are doing some things to make it happen. In this context with so much hurt and addiction it really is the only way–we just have to keep working on how. But in talking with many in the U.S. it appears that it is needed more and more there as well.

The parents of these kids are supposed to come home on Wednesday. I’ve asked for Su to please arrange for me to talk with them.

Father Forgive Them.

We don’t talk about Jesus enough, specifically about the intensity of how he lived among us; “God With Us” was also “God Was (Just Like) Us”.

I have been writing about Su’s transformation from a lost woman leading others into lostness, to a found woman leading others to Jesus. Only now she has to face the damage that she caused, including Daeng, 17, who has been following in Su’s footsteps, helping young girls get into prostitution.

I have known Daeng for 2 1/2 years. Her story is pitiful: her mom left after she was born. Her dad hired a neighbor family to care for her, but eventually he left too. At 13 Daeng was raped, and had a baby.

With the pregnancy Daeng had lost a year of school. We got her re-enrolled, but she started skipping school and lying. Unfortunately public schools generally don’t follow up absences, and with Judy and I in the U.S. at the time there was no one available to could check on Daeng daily. We had no choice but to let her drop out.

Since then I and others have reached out to Daeng, including trying to bring her into The Well. We contacted her father hoping he could get involved. He came to visit but showed no commitment and finally abandoned Daeng again. So we have had no option but to allow Daeng to live without direction.

It is common for young teens from broken homes here to drop out of school shortly after puberty, often in eighth or ninth grade. Their new hormones bring so much good feeling from peer connection and sexual attraction that these kids become addicted to them. They form social groups that survive on drugs and prostitution.

Substance abuse freezes emotional development, making trying to find a connection with these teens difficult. The natural craving for adult attention is replaced by mistrust of adults who now, they believe, oppose their happiness. Daeng says The Well is boring.

I knew it was likely that Daeng was involving younger girls in prostitution but I didn’t want to think about it. But it was pretty upsetting to find out that she had pimped a 12-year-old. I had just met the girl last Sunday when Su brought her to church. She’s a baby, not even fully developed. “Daeng will need to be arrested,” I had said to a co-worker the day before.

I was thinking this way while riding my motorbike to church, when I heard Jesus’ famous sentence, spoken from the cross: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” It was obviously Jesus telling me to forgive Daeng.

Su showed up about three minutes after I arrived with four girls in tow, including both Daeng and the little girl who had just sold herself. Daeng ran up, looking genuinely happy to see me. This was unusual–she normally smiles, gives me a hug and immediately turns away. Today was different. She held eye contact, didn’t turn away to her friends or her phone. I found myself grateful to Jesus‘ reminder to me a few minutes earlier. Seizing the opportunity, I launched into my love-you-so-much-if-you’ll-only-let-us speech, still expecting her eyes to glaze and look away. They held. I kept going. She listened all the way through my no-pain-no-gain speech. Hmmm.

The reason we need to talk about Jesus more is that otherwise we judge people. We all have enough natural fear in us that we will tend towards mistrust. We who claim to follow Jesus, who know good and well that we are saved sinners, no better than any other, still find ways to get down on other sinners. We easily overlook the factors that drove them into their sin.

We cross the street to avoid them. Jesus crossed time and space to find them.

Throughout the teaching time I watched Su sitting next to Daeng, arm around her shoulder, occasionally stroking her hair, glancing at her and smiling like a mother in love with her firstborn. Afterwards, Su reiterated how badly she wants to lead all these girls to Jesus, starting with getting Daeng to join The Well, getting the same opportunity that Su had. We’ll be firm with Daeng about pimping, as we were with Su. “Do that again and we will be happy to involve the police.” But at this point I don’t think it will come to that.

The Tide is Turning.

I just got back from spending some time with Su and Jom in Su’s small storefront home in their building. I wrote about Su’s transformation in this post the other day.

I went to visit because this morning I got a message from Ann, our social service worker, that a twelve-year-old girl had just confessed to Su that she had prostituted herself the night before, and that Daeng, an older teen, had been her agent. This agency system, a common practice among lower-class young women, is called “sending kids”. Ann is knowledge and experienced, and will provide the best possible help for the girl. But I went to visit out of concern for Su.

I had two concerns: First, Daeng got started “sending kids” because Su used to send her. But now Su has clearly shown repentance. How will she handle the guilt of knowing that her misdeeds are causing a ripple effect? Even at her worst, Su wasn’t trying to sell girls that young. My second concern was positive. We had prayed for a breakthrough in this issue for years, and God had handed it to us with Su’s joyful transformation. But we have seen repeatedly a fear, in this type of culture, of standing up for right. Would Su be willing to do that, even if it meant confronting Daeng directly, or going to the police?

She and Jom, a veteran member of The Well who was actually the first to introduce me to Daeng 3 years ago, were sitting together just inside the open door as I drove up on my motorbike. They called to me with excitement . “We were just saying that we needed to talk to Pa Jim!”

Indeed Su was not her usually bubbly self; there was weight in her smile. Yes, she was feeling guilty and responsible. “I keep seeing myself in them,” she said several times. Su herself had started out in business at age 15. But Su was also ready to work on making things right. I had already shown her Psalm 51:10-13: “Create in me a clean heart….Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.” Su had already agreed that she would no longer lead kids into evil but to Jesus. Now the rubber was meeting the road.

Su was particularly concerned about 6 girls, as well as Daeng herself. One case was imminent: a girl who apparently had never done it before but was asking to be sent. She isn’t particularly poor, just wants what she thinks will be easy money. Su said she would be willing to take a stand. We talked about how to work with the girls, the parents and the families in the complex. We agreed to pray and wait for Ann to get involved starting tomorrow.

I showed Su 1 Timothy 1:12-17, where Paul famously calls himself “chief sinner”. Jom already had it highlighted in her phone app. I mentioned the opening words of a song, that we sing often: “Your kindness leads me to repentance,” and at Su’s request we sang it together. We prayed about turning Su’s little storefront into a ministry center. She has already begun hosting a team from The Well that reaches out to teens on Friday nights.

You just can’t beat this stuff. It’s why we never want to stop. The gentle, humble, friend of sinners got another friend. And there’s more to come.

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.