read Woke Up in a Slum
I cringe at the term missionary. When I was younger I pictured missionaries as large, wholesome families dressed like a blast from the past with awkward kids who had crazy experiences with witch doctors. And bad haircuts. And yet, here I am in Bangkok, living the life of what you could call a missionary.
There is a vignette in the film Paris, Je T’aime in which an American woman travels alone to Paris after years of dreaming and anticipating. As she walks the city, she reflects on her life, on the things she loves, on the things she’s chosen, on the things she’s lost and on the things she longs for.
Eventually, she finds herself sitting at a park eating a sandwich, watching, enjoying, thinking. At that moment, she has a feeling unlike any other, yet familiar in some way. It is like joy and sadness all at once. It is the feeling of being alive. And that is the moment which she fell in love with Paris.
I watched this short film several weeks ago and the woman’s sentiments deeply resonated with me. The event of turning thirty this year was my park bench. I thought back on my life in Bangkok for the last 4 years and my recent decision to extend my commitment.
I thought about my three year-old niece and the nephew I’m expecting at the New Year. I thought about my home in my slum community and the many roommates I have had, ranging from age 2 to 87.
I thought about the nascent bilingual internship I’m directing and how I’ve witnessed the interns mature and be stretched thus far.
I thought about the times I have seen God fight for people in miraculous ways: healing congenital heart disease, stopping torrential rain for the construction of houses for poor families, arranging chance meetings between long lost friends after becoming believers, breaking addictions, healing marriages.
I thought about the many believers who have left and opted out of faith in Jesus. I thought about the far-reaching flooding in Bangkok and the millions of people affected. I thought about Thai food because it is oh, so good. I thought of my affection for my Thai family, the dysfunction in our relationship, and my longing for their redemption and peace. I thought of my own mother and her decision to put her faith in Jesus two years ago after years of intercession.
I thought of my hopes, the wait for promises fulfilled, and the things I cannot know and have trouble accepting. My life is a conglomerate of great joy and great sadness. I have chosen a life in tension. Essentially, I have chosen a profession in the business of hope.
Entrepreneurs of Hope
Walter Brueggemann, in his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” describes the role of prophetic ministry as helping people see beyond the current, apparent, broken situation to imagine a new reality according to God’s vision of redemption.
A missionary is a prophetic entrepreneur of Hope. We live in the present reality but live as if the future glory were now. We engage in the dirt and brokenness of life with our heart attuned to the Holy Spirit’s progressive direction. We work diligently to combat oppressive forces and systems and to create alternative cultures of love and harmony. We are both in this world and about this coming Kingdom.
Missions is the space between.
This morning, as I was studying Luke 9 with our interns, the Biblical paradigm of another point of tension emerged in our discussion: Power and authority vs. humility and dependence. As Jesus gave the twelve power and authority to heal, drive out demons, and preach the good news, he also took away their physical and relational security: no bag, no extra shirt, no money, stay where people take you in, eat what they have. They gained miraculous abilities and lost the ability to take care of themselves. When they came back from their journey of dependence, Jesus told the disciples to feed the masses. They barely had a meal for their own group and, had Jesus forgotten, they didn’t have any money?
No problem; what you have is what you can give.
Jesus doesn’t handle power and authority the way the world does. The world gains wealth and power and buys stuff for themselves. For Jesus, the more power and authority he gives, the greater humility and dependence he requires. The gifts we get are to be shared blessings for others. Jesus himself will generously take care of us.
This is where the rubber hits the road for me: I like being independent. I like knowing the way and having a five-year plan. I like stability. I like security. What does this mean for how I live my life?
What is Strength?
One night as I was parking my motorbike in front of my house, a girl, Kaew, started talking to me about motorcycles. Kaew is 12 years old and a couple years ago she dropped out of school and started running drugs in our community. She is the toughest little girl I have ever met. Once before, she’d shown me how she could light her shirt on fire.
This time she started telling me how she was driving her motorcycle (did I mention she’s 12) and got in an accident in which one of the other drivers involved was killed. And as she was telling me and trying to show me how tough she was by how unaffected she was by it, I thought in my heart, “if only you knew what real strength was.”
We are only strong when we trust in the One who is greater than us, who is carrying and protecting us. Like children, we are strong when we are secure in our parents’ love and safety and turn to Him in need. Essentially, a large component of strength is accepting one’s weaknesses.
And as I thought and prayed about strength for Kaew, I realized that I was exactly like her. So much of my identity has been about what I do and how successful I am and how able I am to get what I want. Our generation believes that we can and ought to achieve our dreams and if we are disappointed, we’ve failed in some way.
In all those disappointments of believers lost, persistent brokenness, unfulfilled expectations, loss of relationships, I questioned, “What went wrong?” and felt the opposite of strong. But I had it all wrong. Disappointment, failure, and discontent are not outside of the realm of God’s Sovereignty.
Rather than trying to fix it all and finding the defective pieces, I could acknowledge my weakness and my inability to make all things right. I could stop trying to grasp for control and allow my hands to be open to receive from Him. Strength was about Him, not me. This key to strength was found in my moment of greatest weakness; my only recourse to trust in the Strong One. His presence was more clear in that space of tension.
So right there, in the crux of strength and weakness, in the crux of authority and humility, in the crux of power and dependence, in the crux of brokenness and redemption, in the crux of joy and sadness, in the moment between this present world and this coming Kingdom, I realized that I love this place.