Sunday, July 31, 2005

It Didn’t Start in Africa

I know I came back from the sabbatical preaching all this stuff about the poor and hungry. I’m painfully aware of how that sounds. The preacher runs off to Mexico and Africa for a few months and gets on a kick about poverty and now we have to listen to that for a while. But I have to tell you that it didn’t start on the sabbatical. I owe you the more complete story.

In fact, the choice of where I went and what I did on the sabbatical was determined more by what had been going on inside for some time. The deepest roots of this probably extend nearly thirty years into my life. As a summer intern during my seminary education I took a group of high school kids to El Paso and worked with some poor children along the border. Later, I took a doctoral seminar in biblical ethics at Baylor that led me to look at biblical teaching on the care of the poor and hungry in some depth. (I’m working on having a paper I wrote back then digitalized so that I can edit it and share it with whomever might be interested.) I came away believing in my head that the church is mandated to engage the needs of the poor, but without a clear understanding of how to move in that direction.

I spent two years in my first pastorate serving a church in the inner city of Houston, working with lower-middle income families and a few genuinely poor people along the way. I took my first international mission trip during those years, visiting Campinas, Brazil, and seeing from a distance the cardboard houses filling a hillside in Saõ Paulo. I did not know then how common that the scene is around the world.

I taught the Old and New Testaments academically at Houston Baptist Univeristy for nearly eight years. I was always careful to teach the words of the prophets about doing justice, loving kindness, and caring for the poor and hungry. But nothing going on in my life reflected that. I made a couple of trips to the Rio Grande Valley and helped to conduct VBS with some poor children there. But when I returned home, life continued unaffected.

Over the years more mission experiences have helped me see what is taking place in my world – Brazil again, Ethiopia, Uganda. But back at home, it remained business as usual. Most of my attention in those places was focused on the spiritual lostness of the people, not on their lives here and now. That was the way I had been formed spiritually to see the world. My upbringing did not train me to see poverty as a religious or spiritual issue.

Gradually, a few years ago, things began to change for me. I have written of this elsewhere. (
Click here) What began to grow in me was a vision for compassionate ministry. This is good and Christlike. It ought to be what we are constantly doing. But I have come to understand that there remains more to this life in the Kingdom than even compassionate service.

A little more than a year ago I was having one of those prayer-exchanges with God that are nearly conversational. They don't happen often for me. I mean by that that I could sense a response from God to my questions and complaints. On my side, I was wondering aloud in prayer whether I was the right pastor to lead UBC into the future, whether I needed to be elsewhere, whether God needed someone else here. I was complaining about the stagnation I was sensing in me and in the church. I suddenly sensed a response: “Get back to work. I am fully capable of placing you elsewhere or placing someone else here if that is needed.” So I went back to work and dropped the whining. Actually I did not think much more about that exchange until earlier this year.

In January 2005 I spent a week in Dayton, Ohio, experiencing the first of five weeks in which I will serve as mentor to a group of four pastors who are Doctor of Ministry Students at the
United Theological Seminary. I knew no one at the seminary, but their invitation seemed like an assignment I ought to take. It satisfied my need to teach in a seminary setting without costing a whole day every week for sixteen weeks. I make a trip to Dayton twice a year and then work with the students by email, Internet, and phone. Twice a year we meet for two days to review their work. My group was in town a couple of weeks ago.

Anyway, I was exposed to a different kind of culture at United. The stated values of the school are “Nurture of Piety, Love of Learning, and Pursuit of Justice.” I read those on their web page. Although those values were not spoken during my week with them, they were lived out everywhere. Their academic program impressed me. It is a demanding program, different from other Doctor of Ministry programs I was familiar with. Worship each day was alive and vital. A new Dean of Doctoral Studies was announced and the faculty was called forward to lay hands on her and pray for her. Piety was nurtured unashamedly. During the week I heard lectures and sermons by both black and white preachers and teachers that focused compellingly on the pursuit of justice in the Christian life. I heard things that challenged both the way I think and the way I live. I realized I was going to have to process that week carefully when I returned.

As I began to think and pray through those days, God reminded me of our exchange more than a year earlier. It was as if God said, “You were right. You are not the right pastor to lead UBC into the future. But I'm ready to help you become that pastor.” I am coming to understand my own need to grow beyond compassionate ministry into the doing of justice.

One writer puts it this way: evangelical Christians are becoming better about compassionate ministries. It is as if we are standing on the bank of a river and compassionately reaching out to pull struggling swimmers to the shore and to safety. That is important. But we now need to learn to ask, “Who is upstream throwing them in the river?”

It is good to sit with an AIDS victim in Africa or a small child at Emerald Pointe and to express the compassion of Christ to them with your very presence. It is good to feed the poor and hungry. The step beyond that, however, is to begin to ask what it is that keeps people in poverty, and how do we have an impact on that? What are the systemic issues in government, healthcare, education, nutrition, and culture that hold people in their place so effectively? What are poor Hispanic families in Pasadena up against that we do not even recognize? How can those who have resources, wealth, and, thus, power, use our voices to speak up for them (Prov 31:8-9)?

Last spring, soon after returning from Dayton, I attended a
Renovare Conference in Houston and heard Dallas Willard and Richard Foster teach. In one session they discussed the six streams of Christian tradition that are flowing together in the church: evangelical, contemplative, holiness, charismatic, incarnational, and social justice. Each of these streams has had a denomination or tradition that has “specialized” in it. However, the Body of Christ needs the impact of all of them. As Willard spoke about social justice, he made the point that those in the Christian community who have a voice are obligated to speak on behalf of people whose voices are muted. Once more, God seemed to be pointing me to the role we at UBC must take alongside our concern for spiritual lostness and compassionate ministries.

In April I went to Dallas with four others from our church – Dr. John Wilson, Harold Draughon, Rick Carpenter, and Jeff Waldo. We participated in the Externally Focused Church Leadership Community. A dozen churches from all over the country sent teams. Each of these churches is at some stage in attempting to focus its ministries outside the walls of their campus. As we engaged the exercises and discussions we became convinced that we needed to have some specific places to focus our ministries. Emerald Pointe and the Whitcomb Elementary School distict emerged as the most viable places to focus.

Along the way during the Spring I was finalizing plans for my sabbatical. It seemed clear to me that I needed to be with those who spend their lives sharing good news and compassion with the poor. Opportunities in Oaxaca, Uganda, South Africa, and Thailand made their way to the surface. I knew I would have my life challenged by things I saw and heard. I knew I would need to learn more about God's call for justice in our world.

Then I left on sabbatical. With all that simmering in my heart and mind. I walked in the villages of Oaxaca and sat with AIDS patients in Africa. I spoke with village pastors about the needs of their people. I watched the news coming from Scotland, as nations who have much debated about how much and in what ways they were willing to share their resources with nations that have little. I continued to read and study and pray. I visited with missionaries from Asia who have been serving tsunami victims who have nothing left. And when I returned and prepared to preach, Isaiah and his fellow prophets were waiting for me in my study.

This has been the journey so far. It is not over. I have questions – lots of questions. I don’t have answers. I am both ignorant and naïve about many of these matters. I am certain of little except that the inescapable biblical teachings call us to attend to issues of poverty and hunger, and the more so since we do not face those issues ourselves. I do believe that Christian citizens are obligated to speak to our government about these matters regardless of which party is in power. We are called always to speak Truth to Power. We are called to speak from a moral position grounded not in party platforms but in Scripture. I am certain that government has a role to play in these issues, but that it does not have a solo or even a lead role. Churches, charities, faith-based organizations and other non-profits will be vital.

I do not hear the themes of poverty, hunger, and social justice echoed much in the “mega-churches” of our culture, so I’m fairly certain that this may not be the best way to build a huge attendance. (For an exception to that statement, see the work of
Rick Warren and the Saddleback Church on AIDS in Africa.) I cannot see us being faithful to the gospel, however, without attending to such matters. A half-dozen emails I received last week encourged me as I heard from some of our members who are engaged regularly in ministries to people in need. I know of many others as well. It is a ministry we must do more than give lip service to.

I will not be preaching weekly on poverty and hunger, I promise. But I also promise not to avoid the portions of Scripture that say hard things to us and call us to justice. I have no intent to induce guilt in us. Guilt-avoidance serves little purpose in changing behavior long term. I do want to allow the way we think about ourselves and our world to be permanently re-shaped by the freedom and forgiveness that is found in the whole gospel. I want us to learn to follow Jesus, simply put.

But trust me on this – it didn’t start in Africa.



Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Good News from Oaxaca

Received the following email from Connie Johnson in Oaxaca this morning:

Hey Robert, Glad you all are back. Can't wait to see you and visit. Just wanted you and Jenna to know that your spanish teacher Zorida accepted Christ as her Savior a couple of weeks ago. She came to church Sunday. She is looking for a church. We were so excited. See God used you while you were here and it paid off. Blessings to you and your family.


Monday, July 18, 2005

There and Back Again

Last Thursday afternoon, around 4:30, our British Airways Boeing 777 touched down at Bush Intercontinental and settled at Terminal E. That marked the end of 65 straight hours of travel that had begun at 11:00 PM Houston time on Monday. Those hours had taken me from Chiang Mai, Thailand, through Singapore, Johannesburg, London, and Chicago. I had flown on Silk Air, Singapore Air, and British Airways. I watched eight movies and slept some. Over the past two months I had logged approximately 77 hours of flying time and about 30,000 miles. But I was home and glad to be there. I was back.

In Chicago we were to deplane, gather our checked luggage, proceed through customs, and then recheck our bags and board the same plane for Houston. My one checked suitcase did not make the trip. I was told to file a claim with the British Air agent in Houston when I arrived, which I did. Because I’d packed for a one month journey that would have me in both summer and winter, working, camping, preaching, and teaching, I’d needed a variety of costumes and had taken almost all my useable clothes with me. My carry-on luggage contained two changes of clothes. Those and the clothes I was wearing would just have to do for a while.

Pat Forrester kindly picked us up at Bush and drove us home. We stopped on the way at Hobby Airport to pick up Connie (from Kansas City) and Elizabeth (from Dayton, Ohio), a couple of doctoral students from the
United Theological Seminary that were coming in to meet with me and with each other for a couple of days. (That’s for a future post.) Chris (from North Carolina), another student was arriving later, and Matthew, yet another had already driven into Houston with Beverly, his wife, and Taylor, his daughter from North Carolina.

The six of us went to our house where we found that Shelley Waldo and some unknown others had thoughtfully provided a crockpot containing a pot roast and vegetables. Fresh rolls were rising waiting to be baked. An apple pie and Blue Bell Homeade Vanilla also stood ready. Chris soon arrived in a rental car, and Diana Forrester joined us as well. We enjoyed again what we had so often enjoyed in Uganda – gathering around the table and sharing a meal, stories, and lots of laughter with friends and fellow servants of Christ.

I had to hit the ground running. On Friday morning I picked up the UTS students at the new La Quinta and we drove to southwest Houston for a tour of the community ministries of
Windsor Village United Methodist Church. That experience is the material for another post, however. WVUMC is the largest Methodist congregation in the UMC. It is an African-American congregation led by Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, whom you may remember as the pastor who offered prayer at both of President Bush’s inaugurations. I took the group to lunch at the Goode Company Texas Bar-B-Q on Kirby, high on my list.

Friday evening (dinner at Pei Wei’s) we met to talk about their doctoral work. Saturday morning Trisha Taylor, co-author of The Leader’s Journey joined us for a discussion of personal transformation. We worked on clarifying our thinking on the question of how exactly does personal change take place in the life of a disciple of Jesus. After lunch (Sundance Grill in Seabrook) we worked further on the projects each of these students is pursuing.

Saturday night I took them to Galveston for dinner at the Original Mexican Café (a personal favorite --there is a pattern here – I get to eat at all my favorite restaurants in one weekend under the guise of hospitality for first-time visitors to Houston) and a ride on the Bolivar Ferry (another personal favorite). Sunday morning I picked them up and we returned to Windsor Village UMC for a worship service. I’ll describe that in a later post as well. They wanted to return to the Goode Company Texas Bar-B-Q for lunch, so I obliged. We drove past the new Lakewood Church (formerly known as the Compaq Center) and then home through a blinding rain.

I picked them up a couple of hours later for a return trip to the city. On Sunday evening we worshiped with
Ecclesia, a congregation of 20-somethings that meets in the old West End Baptist Church on Durham every Sunday evening. This is an amazing congregation made up mostly of young people doing some awesome ministry in the city and among the poor and disenfranchised in Central America. Chris Seay, their pastor, is the son of one of my college friends and is a cousin of our own Sterling Edwards. Following worship we dined at Star Pizza with dessert at Amy’s Ice Creams. I took them back to La Quinta and this morning they began their journeys back home.

I left the house this morning at 4:00 to take Elizabeth to Hobby. When I backed out, I noticed an orange minivan parked in front of my house and a tall, grey-haired man standing outside the open side door. He appeared to be loading suitcases in it, as if one of my neighbors was embarking on a long trip. Then I noticed he held a clipboard. I stopped and asked him if I could be of help. He was a lost luggage deliverer and he had my suitcase!

Matthew and his family will begin their drive home sometime this morning. Chris headed for Bush Intercontinental late last night. I’ll take Connie to Hobby at 10:30. A few odds and ends around the house will command my attention for the remainder of the day. A bank account is begging to be balanced. I need a haircut. A couple of minor repairs are waiting.

Tomorrow will be the final day of the sabbatical journey that began on April 20. Then, on Wednesday morning I will report for duty. I am eager to do so. Much is in my heart and head now that was not present in April. Much that was present in April has been laid aside as well.

I’m glad to be back again. I’ll see you Wednesday evening, or perhaps this weekend. Thank you for your generosity that made this period of sabbatical possible. If you get tired of hearing stories that begin with “when I was in Oaxaca, Uganda, South Africa or Thailand…,” just roll your eyes and I’ll get the message.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Aged Observations

More and more it is my experience that I’m one of the old guys at meetings I attend. Like my idea of doctors, policemen, and teachers, missionaries were supposed to be older people. I walk thorough hospitals these days to see Doogie Howser around every corner. Police patrol our streets not looking old enough to drive, much less to carry a sidearm. Teachers occupy our children’s classrooms, looking like they themselves are not quite ready to graduate. It is a shame that those who authorize such people have stooped so low as to rely on such young people.

Now I’m finding missionaries are that way. I have lived with an image of missionaries as graying and balding. I usually think of the men that way, too. However, I’m being forced to reexamine my assumptions. In Chiang Mai I am surrounded by young people. They are carrying babies around, like my sons will be doing in a few weeks. Yet, here they are, seminary graduates, experienced field missionaries in their late twenties, choosing to follow a call in their lives that has removed them from family and friends, and often, from the safety of home.

I listened over lunch today to a couple who are living in the Far East with their young child. They could be any young adult couple from UBC. They are both graduates of Texas A&M, he in agriculture and she in chemical engineering. They have learned the language and are seeking to develop a business, helping farmers export oils extracted from plants, coffee, and a few other products to the U.S. This is all that will allow them to serve as missionaries. Missionaries are not allowed in their particular area. A sign greeted them as they drove into their city for the first time: “Christian Evangelism Not Permitted.” All they can do is build relationships, help people, and wait for them to ask about their faith. But if they do not plant their lives here doing that, these Muslim people will not know of the grace of Jesus Christ. So they are planning to spend their lives in this place.

I sat with another pair from Texas. She gave birth to a tiny girl last week in Chiang Mai and his mom is here helping with the little one. He is a recent graduate of Truett Seminary in Waco, and she is trained as a social worker. They are investing their lives in a place that has similar restrictions. They are seeking to be the presence of Christ in a place where Christ is not otherwise named.

O.K., I did exaggerate some. Not all of them are so young. Each morning at worship someone has been selected to recount their Journey with Christ so far in their lives. On Friday, we heard from Macarena (like the dance), an Hispanic woman from Texas who, with her husband, Eddie, and their two teenagers, have recently gone to India to work with an unreached people group there. Tsunami relief has occupied most of their days in recent months.

On Tuesday we heard from David and his wife, Ruth. They were business people in Georgia. He had built a multi-million dollar lumber retail business and she was in international banking. Responding to something God put in their souls, they left that for two years to work in Hong Kong. He sold the business and she resigned. Their two year stint is up this month and they will be returning, reluctantly, to the States. You should have heard David describe God’s work in their lives during these two years.

And today, Erika spoke. She described in great detail her struggles with her faith following the tsunami and the ways in which the wave devastated her world. She told with tears how God has worked in her life through all that.

I am sitting each day with physicians and counselors who are not themselves missionaries. They are part of what is called the Member Care Team. These missionaries on the field have access 24 hours a day to doctors, therapists, child psychiatrists, and others in the U.S. These are professionals who volunteer their time to provide member care for these in Asia. They make an effort to come to Asia every so often to be with these servants in their homes or at meetings like this one. You have to be invited to be part of the Member Care Team. I was pleasantly surprised by this. I did not know that CBF had this dimension to their missionary efforts. I do not know of anyone else with such a system of support.

One of the Member Care Team lingered after lunch to speak with me yesterday. He is here with his college aged daughter. His wife had surgery just before he left and was discovered to have a cancer discovered too late. She insisted that dad and daughter make this trip and have some time together, while she wanted a week to sort through her own future, which appears to be greatly foreshortened. The agony of this servant of God was deep as he described what he and his wife of 34 years were now up against.

A physician and his wife, who is a therapist, responded to some of the teaching time by sharing their own story with me. They are part of the Member Care Team as well. Twenty years ago, while they themselves were missionaries in Asia, they lost a twenty-one year old college student son to depression and suicide in the U.S. The compassion the two of them have for these missionary families is palpable. They would do anything for them.

My experience tells me that what is true among these Fellowship missionaries – passion, commitment, sacrifice, struggles – is true among many who leave family and friends for the sake of the gospel.

The people I have spent much of my summer with – Rod and Connie Johnson, Larry and Sally Pepper, Gary and Cheryl Price, and these many Fellowship missionaries in Asia, are folk that deserve our support in every way possible. Lifestyles that reflect some significant sacrifice to provide financial, prayer, and personal support are called for. These are paying a price for what they do. And they are doing it with such passion.

Today I heard a presentation about the current efforts to take the Gospel to the whole world in this generation. Missionaries are going FROM Central and South America, Asia, and Africa by the hundreds to live their lives among those who do not yet have access to the truth of Christ. Google “Ethne” and see if you can find something about this movement of God.

Listening to all that raises for me questions about our role in all this – yours and mine. We have a goal in our vision statement that calls for 80% of us to have a cross-cultural mission experience by 2010. Talk that up among your friends, among the people in your WBS classes or your small groups. Find out who has already done that. Ask when others are planning to make that happen in their lives. Who owns a passport?

If you want more info about becoming involved in a mission experience that would make a difference in both your life and the world, contact Timothy Woods. Go to the
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship website and look for info on volunteer opportunities. Don’t worry. You are not too young. And you are not too old. Apparently God is willing to use all who are willing to go.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Assignment with CBF Folks

The last sabbatical I took (Y2K) was not quite as elaborate as this one. But it was memorable and productive. The best memories from the Y2K sabbatical centered around the drive from Houston to Washington, D.C. with Melinda and Jenna, stopping at every lighthouse along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. At the same time, UBC was beginning its “Lighthouses of Hope” theme for the summer. The worship center was being dismantled for remodeling and UBCers were meeting in homes, schools, parks, and even bars around the Clear Lake area. Groups met in 80 different locations over those weeks.

In July of 2000 I went to D.C. to visit the Bowen Family Center, to build on my novice status in family systems studies. I consulted with faculty there, attended conferences, and viewed hours of video tapes. My goal was to find a way to combine what I was learning in family systems theory with what I was learning and experiencing in spiritual formation and leadership. The result, a couple of years later, was a book I co-authored with two friends, Trisha Taylor and Jim Herrington. Jossey-Bass published it in its Leadership Network series as The Leader’s Journey.

The book captures several ideas that are important to me. One of my most deeply held convictions is that leadership is not manipulation and that it is not about techniques. It is ultimately about the life of the leader. It does not matter whether we are talking about leadership in the home, in the corporate world, in a school, or in the church. Leadership is about the life of the leader. Leaders who pay attention only to techniques in order to manipulate their way through life, lead people astray. The more difficult thing for any of us to do is to attend to our own lives. But that is the path the journey takes.

I am also convinced that God has created us, wired us up, in ways that can be understood. And I believe that when we understand some of those ways, we can live more effectively. Family systems theory helps me understand some of the ways in which we are wired up and wired together.

The practice of spiritual disciplines is the third part of the equation for me. When Paul speaks about struggles with “the flesh” in Romans 7, about doing the things he doesn’t want to do and not being able to stop, about not doing the things he knows he should, I think he is talking about the way we are wired up as a result of sin. Changing the wiring is not possible without the grace of Jesus Christ. But those changes do not occur automatically. That’s why you can know someone who has been a Christian for decades but who remains as mean as a snake. Or that’s why you and I can continue to struggle with a particular sin or way of relating to others. Change is not automatic. It requires effort.

But, as Dallas Willard says, grace is not opposed to effort, grace is opposed to earning. The practices of study, silence, solitude, prayer, meditation, journaling, confession, service, worship, and other disciplines become instruments in God’s hands to transform us gradually into his image. The disciplines do not earn us favor with God or get Heaven’s attention. They are simply means for giving God our attention. We cannot make the seed grow. Only God can. But we can till the soil. The disciplines help to break up our soul soil and ready us for the life God wants to give us.

I began presenting the Leader’s Journey material in Thailand this morning (Friday) and will continue through Monday, about an hour and a half each morning. About sixty Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in Asia are gathered here in Chiang Mai for renewal and strategy planning. The group meets like this about every three years. Our own Steve Johnson is part of the group. During the remainder of each day I am hanging out with them, listening, reading, writing, and resting.

Already I have enjoyed sharing meals, worship, and conversation with these men and women who are placing their lives on the line in service to the Kingdom of God in a variety of places in Asia. Money given from UBC to support the work of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship keeps these servants on the field in places where no other witness to Christ exists. Their mission of “being the presence of Christ in the world” is pursued with passion and effectiveness.

Please pray for me and for your missionaries as we gather to worship and to think. Pray for God to offer them a refreshing and renewal with his presence. Many of these will have been coming off of six months working in tsunami relief. They will be physically, emotionally, and spiritually weary. Pray that they may hear Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest.

Still On the Journey,

The Temples of Chiang Mai

I spent Thursday morning walking through the old city of Chiang Mai (which, ironically means “new city”) alone. Learning from the heat of the previous afternoon, I decided to get out before it was so intense. I employed a Tuk-Tuk driver to take me to my starting point, just inside the moat and remnants of an ancient wall that mark the old city. Then I followed the instructions for a walking tour I found in a brochure. It took about two hours, but I could have taken eight. Chiang Mai offers that much to see.

My walk started in the northeast corner of the city and followed a route that wound through busy city streets and some quiet lanes, passing some of the better known of the three hundred temples in Chiang Mai. The Tuk-Tuk dropped me off at the Wat (temple) Chiang Man, the oldest temple in the city, built in AD 1296.

I entered the gates of the compound by passing through two huge dragon figures. This would become a familiar experience, since the gates of all the temples were guarded by them. Each temple compound contained several buildings. The viham is the building containing a statue of the Buddha and is used for prayer. It is like a chapel. Often more than one of these stood in the temple compounds. You must remove your shoes before entering the viham.

The small viham at Wat Chiang Man contains two of the most highly valued Buddha images in the city. The Phra Sila is a marble based relief from Sri Lanka that is supposed to prevent destruction, and the Phra Sae Tang Khamani, a tiny crystal figure sheltered by an umbrella, is believed to have the power to bring rain. On the steps leading up to the building sat a woman selling caged pigeons to be purchased and released. I don’t know what the symbolism of that act would be in Buddhism. In the back of the building stood a huge structure called a chedi, capped with bright gold and supported by large carved elephants. It is shaped like a lotus flower, forming a point at the top, supposedly symbolizing the movement toward nothingness that the religion aspires to.

As instructed, I left by the back gate (a frequently given instruction on this walking tour) and turned left, right, then left again on Phra Pokklao Road. I continued down the street until I came to a traffic light, crossed the street and came to the Three Kings Monument. On a large plaza stands a monument to King Mengrai, who founded the city in AD 1296. He is flanked by two other kings who served as his allies. The black statues each wore a lime green silk sash.

The plaza there provided a good stopping place to sit under a tree and consult my map. After making my way down a very busy street whose sidewalks were under construction, forcing me into the street, I came to my next site, Wat Pan Tao. The entire temple appeared to be undergoing a radical restoration. It was surrounded by scaffolding crawling with workers, so I did not enter. I was able to see the beautiful glass inlaid peacock over its doors for which it is known.

Another block down the street I took a right and came to a very large temple, Wat Chedi Luang, sort of a Buddhist mega-temple. Groups of uniformed school children walked in the large plaza around the temple buildings, led by monks clothed in their bright orange robes. This temple’s main feature is a huge brick chedi that stands almost 200 feet high (until an earthquake damaged it, it was nearly 300 feet high). The temple also had a little snack bar outside where I bought a bottle of water and sat down for a while, completing a survey for the TAT (the Tourist Authority of Thailand) representative. A big yellow sign near the snack area announced that Monk Chat was held there from 12:30-6:00 every day and that you could talk to a monk about Buddhism, monastery life, Thai culture, or anything else, for free. I was too early to have a monk chat, but that would have been interesting. I thought about putting up a Pastor Chat sign at the King’s Table, but figured I would not do much business.

Out the back gate again, left on Ratchadamnoen Road, past the police station and a half dozen sidewalk restaurants, and I came to Wat Phra Singh. More Buddha’s and monks. I’m almost templed out. But I press on. (Wear sandals when you do this. The monks do. It makes it easier to take off your shoes to go inside.)

Out the back gate once more, turn left, left again, and then right on a small lane that wound through a residential area. Eventually it passed the Wat Muen Ngem Kong, a lesser known temple in Chiang Mai. One of the features of this temple was a large reclining Buddha image. It looked inviting.

Out the back gate again onto a very narrow lane that led past the Wat Phuak Hong. The gates were closed here, but you could see a brick chedi dating from the 16th century. A little further down the road and I came to the back entrance of Buak Haad City Park, the end of the walking tour. It is a beautifully landscaped park with benches and shade. I sat and reviewed my map again. Outside the front gates of the park merchants spread their wares on a red brick side walk. A three wheel bicycle parked there sported a bucket filled with burning charcoal and fuming incense. Across the street from the entrance was the city’s moat, the part that runs east and west on the south side of the city.

I crossed over the road and headed east, thinking I would walk all the way back to the Galare Guest House. After a few blocks, however, another Tuk-Tuk ride seemed like a good idea. I stopped the driver in front of the Starbucks and walked from there, dropping in to an internet café to check email and then grabbing lunch at the Honey Grilled Chicken sidewalk café across from the Bomb Car Rental.

After lunch I walked the two remaining blocks to my room, cleaned up, packed up, and waited for the taxi that would take me to the Suan Bua Resort for my meeting with the CBF Asia missionaries.

I was ready for a break from the three days of solitude I had spent in a city of 170,000. After looking at dozens of Buddhist images that morning I was also grateful for a Risen Savior and the grace of God that made the rituals of religion unnecessary. I wondered what it was like for the 170,000 Thai people here in this beautiful place who do not know Jesus Christ. I was grateful for the men and women who serve here with CBF or the IMB, bringing good news.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

East Meets West

East Meets West Posted by Picasa

The journey from Durban, South Africa to Chiang Mai, Thailand took about twenty-four hours: a short flight from Durban to Johannesburg, an eleven hour voyage from there to Singapore, and then a three hour jaunt to Chiang Mai.

The long flight was aboard a Singapore Air Boeing 777. So far, this airline has my vote. Service was excellent (smiling attendants, hot wet towels a couple of times in flight), food was delicious (dinner and breakfast), coffee was fresh and strong, and the entertainment options were incredible. The 777 has a small video screen at each seat. We’d seen that on British Air. But this one also had a detachable remote control on the arm of the seat. Passengers have a choice of watching 60 movies on demand, about 30 TV shows, and more than 300 CDs on the audio channel (you can even program your own playlist). Or you can watch news, run an interactive language program by Berlitz in about eight languages (if you complete it they mail you a certificate), or play a dozen or so Nintendo games. Some of their flights (London to Singapore and a few others) have wireless internet available.

On the leg from Singapore to Chiang Mai I was with a plane load of Baptists from Oklahoma and Ohio on their way to conduct a VBS in Chiang Mai. We arrived at about ten o’clock in the morning. My suitcase did not. It was still in Singapore. Singapore Air assured me it would be delivered to my lodging by that afternoon. (And it was.)

With the help of my spam filter, I had missed an email from Ellen Burkette, one of the missionaries here, saying she would pick me up at the airport, so I secured a taxi and made it to the Galare Guest House ( on the Ping River on the east side of the city. Ellen called later to be sure I had arrived.

The Galare House provides a clean, comfortable room for a mere $22.50 USD a day. An extra $1.25 gets me a room with a LAN connection to high speed Internet. It is actually a 30 foot long cable coiled in the corner of the room. The restaurant offers some really good Thai food for about $1.75 a meal.

I showered and took a short nap and then went out to explore the city for the first time. It is a strange feeling to be in a foreign city in which I know not a single person. I will not connect with the missionaries here until Thursday. I got a map and headed out. My destination was a Starbucks that appeared to be a short walk away. My route took me by at least a dozen local coffee shops and another dozen Internet cafes and another two dozen massage parlors (Can there really be that many professional masseuses in one city?).

I walked through the Night Bazaar. It was only about 4:00 PM, and the merchants were just setting up their booths along the streets. You could smell the aroma of incense and of food cooking in curry. I wondered why people shop so late until I went for a walk this afternoon and almost collapsed from the heat.

I found the Starbucks and had a cup of coffee of the day and an expresso brownie and thought of Pat Forrester. I believe my future cups of java will be the local brew. They really like coffee here. Pat emailed me and asked me to bring back some coffee from Thailand. He suggested mixing beans from Oaxaca, Uganda, and Thailand, sprinkling in some Nescafe from South Africa, and calling it Sabbatical Blend.

I walked for about an hour, visiting some shops. I must have looked fairly comfortable, because a group of Americans stopped me and asked me for directions. I told them I’d only been here a couple of hours. Sorry. I returned to my quarters, cleaned up, and went down for a plate of Pad Thai and a pot of tea. I called Melinda at Gary Price’s house to let her know I had arrived safely, and then I spent most of the evening responding to several days of untouched email. Since I’m operating with exactly a 12 hour difference between here and home, I stayed up late corresponding live with several friends from home, shooting email back and forth. Jeff Waldo was sitting in a chair connected to a dialysis machine and the Internet and I was sitting in a bed in Chiang Mai at midnight. What a great century to live in.

I slept late today, ate breakfast, and headed out again to explore. My goal this time was the Hard Rock Café, where I was going to take a photo and get a pin for Kat, my daughter-in-law, who works for the Houston location. I never found it. Apparently it has closed.

Taxis are everywhere. They come in several varieties. One version is a
red mini pick-up with a cab on back and a row of seats on each side. You see a lot of those. Then you have compact car-sized taxis, like the one I got at the airport. I see about a jillion moped-type motorcycles, like the boda-bodas in Mbarara as well. I suppose they are for rent. And ever corner has several Tuk-Tuks, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis that can carry two passengers in the covered back seat.

As I started out on my excursion, a Tuk-Tuk driver offered me a lift. I declined, telling him I wanted to walk. He opened a folded color brochure and asked if I wanted “one of these,” pointing to the paper. I looked over his should to see photos of a dozen scantily clad Asian women. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.” I made a note not to carry on conversations with anyone unless I initiated them.

I made my way on down Charoen Prathet Road, past the “Bomb Car Rental” (I didn't know they had a branch here. What kind of insurance do you have to carry on them? Do you have to return them with a full tank of gas?) and on to the route made familiar from my walk the day before. It was so hot, I thought I was back home. At 4:30 it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 120 degree heat index. I didn’t know that until checking the weather online just now. I thought I was just being wimpy. When I left Durban on Monday, it was winter.

After a while I chose a restaurant for lunch based primarily on the fact that it was air conditioned. My walk back to the room took me by Starbucks and I felt a frappacino attack. They don’t make those in the local coffee houses. When I got back, I changed into some shorts, turned on the AC and the ceiling fan, and started working on this post.

I picked up a brochure at the Galare House office describing a walking tour of the old city that takes about three hours. They recommend doing it before noon to avoid the heat. I think I’ll take a taxi in tomorrow morning and make the walk. I’m supposed to connect with the CBF folks at 1:30 tomorrow and travel to the
Suan Bua Resort where their conference is being held. Don’t click on that link and look at their webpage, because I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I expect to spend the remainder of this afternoon working on my presentations.

I’m almost ready to come home. Almost. I miss you all and look forward to being back.


Toys 'R' Us in South Africa

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A trip to the Phinda Private Game Park in South Africa was one of the real treats on this trip. Melinda, Jenna, and I visited a park in Uganda three years ago, and I really wanted for Pamm and the Forresters to have that experience in Africa as well. Our schedule in Uganda did not permit it, but South Africa has some incredible parks as well. A friend of Gary’s named Jimmy has some good connections. He is the exercise physiologist for the Sharks, Durban’s professional rugby team. He was able to get us into Phinda (PIN-dah, with a kind of puff on the “p”) at roughly a 75% discount, which is good, because it normally costs about $500 per person per night and we could not have done that. Here’s what we got for our $100 each.

We arrived shortly after lunch was over, but they held the buffet for us. We had a light lunch under the shade of a thatched roof porch high on a hill, overlooking miles of bushland that looked like the Texas Hill Country. When lunch was over, we were summoned to afternoon tea, since we were so late having lunch. Over tea we met our two rangers, Mac and Darrell, and received our briefing: stay in the vehicle no matter what.

We left for our afternoon drive at about four thirty. Within a few minutes we came upon a mother cheetah and her cub that had killed a nyala lamb (sort of like an antelope) and were having their lunch. The animals have no fear of the vehicles, and completely ignore them. We saw impala, cape buffalo, wart hogs, and zebra that afternoon. Since we were in the dead of winter down there, it became dark around 5:45. And it felt exactly as if someone had turned on the A/C. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We kept driving.

Our guide had a spotter/tracker named Leonard who rode on a seat built on the front of the land rover. He had incredibly good eyes. After dark he carried a big spotlight and scanned the bush for animals. They make it a practice not to spotlight animals that are not nocturnal. For example, we saw a pair of black rhinos, but he would not leave the light on them. He was looking for some lions that others had seen in the area.

Eventually we came upon them. At first you could see only the female lying in the grass. Leonard used a red filter over his spotlight which allowed us to see her clearly, but did not blind or disturb her. She was making a low roaring sound that was powerful. They said she was calling to her cubs in the brush nearby. Then the male sat up. He had been lying in the grass beside her, but you could not see him. He also began to roar, not loud, but deep and powerful. You could feel it. We were only a few yards away from them.

When we’d had enough of that, we drove further. The night sky was perfectly clear. The Milky Way was a thick cloud of stars over our heads. You could see the Southern Cross, a constellation that we do not get to view from our part of the world. When we had driven a bit, we stopped. It was time to eat again. The guides took out a table, spread a cloth, opened a box and set up for tea. We had steaming hot coffee, some stuff that is like jerky, and trail mix. Some had hot chocolate or tea. We stood around in the African bush having a snack in the pitch black dark, looking at the night sky. The Brits may not be much on coffee shops down here, but they are classy.

Eventually we packed up and hit the road again. Our driver said he smelled smoke. All of us did. He said it was likely poachers camped nearby and the turned the truck. Soon we saw fires burning. He was headed right for them. We thought we were going to confront poachers in the night.

When he stopped the vehicle we began the most surrealistic experience I’ve had since I sat in the home of a Moslem woman in Mbarara, listening to Christmas carols being played in Runyankore while CNN was on the tv. When we stopped we saw a path marked by torches and we were told it was dinner time (our fourth time to eat since we’d arrived six hours earlier). The torches marked a path into the trees. It looked like we were on Survivor and were headed for Tribal Council. We followed the flaming path into the woods.

We came to an opening in which there was a bonfire built and eight or ten long tables set up, covered with linen tablecloths, set with china and silver, lit with lanterns. Another line of tables held the buffet, and African chefs with tall white hats stood behind it. Yet another line held the bar. We were offered some prawn grilled on a stick for a “starter” (appetizer). Soon we were summoned to our tables.

The buffet consisted of a choice of meats (filet or duck l’orange), mashed potatoes, salad, carrots with honey and chili sauce, grilled zucchini, and bread. Dessert was a chocolate pancake (crepe) folded around a chocolate stuffing, and covered with a coffee sauce. I’m telling you, these people are classy. All this took place in the middle of the South African bush.

After a couple of hours of stuffing ourselves and laughing hard (the UBC table was the noisiest one and we were the only ones not drinking), we loaded up and headed back to the lodge. Melinda rode in the spotter’s seat and operated the light. She actually put the light on a pair of jackals.

The mountain lodge was as elegant as the rest of the experience. We each stayed in our own bungalow – large bedroom, sitting area, back porch, and large bath. We did not get to enjoy this much, because we got in late and left very early the next morning.

At 5:45 AM we got our wake-up call and went for our first breakfast – coffee, tea, bananas, biscuits (cookies). Then we drove into the bush again. We were looking for elephants and we found one not far from the lodge. A large male had come alone from the northern part of the park. When we found him he was dining on a tree. We drove within fifty yards of him and watched him as he worked hard to pull down a large tree. Amazing.

We then went looking for giraffe and found a small group of them with a herd of zebra mixed in as well. Two young giraffe were less than three weeks old. We watched them, or they watched us (giraffe seem to be very curious), until they tired of it and walked away. Then it was time for guess what? Tea. They set up the tables and served us again. Gary assured us they were not trying to impress us. Even if we’d not been there, they would have paused for mid-morning tea anyway. I think I understood where J.R.R. Tolkein got his meal schedule for Hobbits (first breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, etc.)

After hot chocolate and biscuits, we drove farther, finding white rhinos, wildebeests, cape buffalo, and seeing the cheetah pair again. Then we headed back to the lodge for our real breakfast at about eleven. This was a full meal. After eating we packed up, checked out, and made the three hour drive back to Durban, impressed with God’s incredible creativity and the South Africans' great hospitality.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The 4th Away from Home

It is the 4th of July here and no one knows it. I stand in line alone at immigration in the Johannesburg airport, holding my U.S. Passport, scanning the crowd for others with the same, wondering whether there is anyone who knows the significance of the day. A hundred fifty people or more are lined up in the queue to pass through the two open gates which lead out of South Africa and into the rest of the world. The black man in front of me is a South African doctor turned minining engineer (platinum). He and his wife are on their way to London for a three week holiday, something he says he could not do as physician. The whole world is standing in this line. Brits, Chinese, Indian, African, Japanese, Thai, and who knows who else. But I see no more Americans.

I was out of the country on the Fourth once before. It was Brazil that time. I recall sitting around with our mission team in a hotel lobby in Sao Paulo talking about the fact. It is no big deal really. It just feels strange to have no one to say "Happy Fourth of July" to. So, Happy Fourth of July.


Saturday, July 02, 2005

Left Behind

Proverbs 25:6-7 6 Do not exalt yourself in the king's presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, "Come up here," than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.

Luke 14:7-11 7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Jesus took this proverb and fashioned it into a parable and a teaching about not exalting yourself. I’m not sure if that has any real application to the story I’m about to tell you, but it came to my mind.

When we traveled from Entebbe to Durban last Sunday, we flew through Johannesburg (“Joburg” to the locals). As we boarded the South African Airline 737 to fly to Durban, equivalent to a Houston-Dallas flight, all of the other six members of my party were ahead of me in line. I watched the Forrester family hand in their boarding passes to the attendant, and then saw Diana laughing and the attendant marking something on their passes. Melinda and Jenna handed in theirs and the attendant called me up to check in with them, so I went ahead of Pamm. Then Pamm checked in. We walked out of the terminal and boarded a bus that would take us to our plane. Diana, Pat, and Andrew were showing us their boarding passes. They had all been moved from row 15 in economy class to row 6 in first class. We all checked our passes and found that everyone had been moved to first class. Everyone except me. I was in row 29, near the very back of the plane. Ok, that was the seat I had purchased, so I had no reason for complaint. We had no explanation of why the rest of my party was moved.

When we reached our cruising altitude, I saw way up there in first class how the flight attendants were bringing out table cloths for the privileged people up there. I wondered what they were being served. Then she closed the curtains that separated the common people from the others and I could see nothing.

I later found out that they were served a preflight orange juice in a real glass, given a copy of the Sunday paper, brought a steak and mushroom dinner with silver ware, and a warm, wet napkin after dinner. I, on the other hand, was given a plastic cup with one of the usual in-flight selections, and a plastic dish with a macaroni salad in it for a “snack.” I thought they had neglected to give me any utensils, when I discovered that you had to peel back a piece of paper on the top of the plastic container to reveal a three inch plastic fork. But that was ok. That was the seat I had purchased. I had no claim on first class just because everyone else I was traveling with was there and the other seats up there were empty. I was only a little jealous.

Near the end of the flight the blonde attendant from first class came walking down the aisle toward the back of the plane. She was carrying something wrapped in beige linen napkins. She stopped at my seat and asked if I were Mr. Creech. I admitted it. She apologized that I had not been able to fly with my party. She offered me what she had in her arms as a peace offering. I removed the napkins to reveal two bottles of red wine. Just what every Baptist pastor needs. I thanked her, told her it was really unnecessary. Really. She apologized further and returned to the rarified air of first class.

The large white South African man sitting next to me had already demonstrated in flight that he was no tee-totaler, so I gave him the wine. I explained that my family did not drink and I would not be able to use it. He gratefully accepted and asked if it were for religious reasons that I did not drink. I told him that that was sort of true. I did not think it was inherently wrong, but that it would be wrong for us. He grunted as if he understood, and stuffed the bottles into his bag.

The reason given for the change of seating was that they needed to “balance” the plane. I am told by my fellow travelers, and I do believe it, that they did petition the attendant to move me up to be with them, since there were more vacant seats. But I suppose I would have unbalanced that fragile 737 had I been moved from row 29 with my macaroni salad and plastic fork. I did notice that once the two bottles of wine had been brought to the back, the plane did seem to lose some of its stability.

Tales from the Journey

In the beginning, God created all manner of crawling and flying things, including the African tumbu fly, known in Uganda as the mango fly. I suppose, like all of God’s creatures, the tumbu fly has a role to play in the intricate ecology of this magnificent planet. Perhaps it pollinates the mango tree and helps it to produce the delicious, peach-like fruit. I don’t really know about that, I’m just taking a guess. But surely it has some purpose beyond causing myiasis in human beings.

“Myiasis” means the invasion or infestation of bodily tissues or cavities by larvae of flying insects. It is not an attractive sounding experience. One of the common causes of myiasis in Africa is the tumbu fly. It has a nasty habit of laying its eggs on the clothing of human beings. That often happens while laundry is drying outdoors.

The problem is not that you have insect eggs on your clothes. You’d probably never notice that. The issue with the tumbu flies is that the larvae emerge and burrow into your skin when the clothes are worn. You don’t notice that so much. They must be really small. But then, inside your skin, they start to grow. This is where it starts to sound like the movie “Alien,” or that scene in “The Matrix” where they inject that electronic insect thing into Neo. As the maggot grows, feeding on your flesh and blood, it creates a large, nasty boil in a couple of days. It’s sometimes possible to identify the maggots’ breathing tubes as two black dots in the boils. The sore begins to ooze some combination of pus and larva feces. Supposedly they are only hitching a ride for a while, and when they mature they emerge to change into a fly, leaving no permanent damage. I don’t think you really want to wait for that, however.

So when you see the boil, you can coat it with something like Vaseline, or triple-antibiotic ointment. That keeps air from getting to the worm, and it starts to suffocate. So it backs out looking for oxygen. That’s when you can use a needle and mash the tender boil really hard and force the maggot out. The sore will heal up in a day or so.

That’s what happened to me. Fortunately, the boil was on the calf of my right leg. I could think of other locations where the experience could have been much worse. The strange thing about this was the timing. One day we were sitting around talking about this very thing, and how people who hang out their laundry must iron every piece in order to destroy the eggs and keep this from happening. We all shivered at the description of the condition. Then the next day, this boil appeared on my leg. Dr. Pepper thought it might be a spider bite. But a couple of days later, in Durban, we removed the larva.

It is funny how things are in this world. Some little fly, just trying to do her job of pollinating mangos and reproducing, chooses to use your skin in the process, without asking permission. She has a part to play in the grand scheme of things, but causes some suffering to others along the way. I guess that I benefit from the little fly, because I enjoy eating mangos. (Their skin causes a horrible allergic reaction to Melinda, however, which happened in Oaxaca, but that’s another ecological puzzle.) We are like that, too, it seems. We play our part, try to contribute to the world, but even with the best effort on our part, we end up leaving suffering in our paths as well, often unintentionally. Paul saw that as the evidence of the fallen nature of all of the creation:

Romans 8:18-22 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
The remedy to all this is hope. We live with hope that someday, God will create a new heaven and a new earth. We will enjoy its beauty. And it will be marked by none of the suffering that mars this fallen world of ours. The mango flies will have to find some other means of reproducing. Or, if they use our legs it won’t hurt. I hope.