Today We Celebrate 25 Years of Global Ministry!
I still look back from time to time to that moment sitting on a picnic table in Montmagny, Quebec. I knew well on that cold damp day that my life and my family would change forever. We had just received news of our overseas appointment. Thailand would soon be home. Though we had no idea what life in Asia was like, I was still making promises to God. My youthful fervour had me promising to God that I would give it my all and for as long as he wanted.
The day our Old World ended was August 17th 1991 at 14:50hrs. Imagine what three tired little boys, a wife and her man might have looked like as they pushed their trolleys filled with 10 over-stuffed suitcases after over thirty hours of travel and finally entering a strange New World. Anticipation. Once we got out of the immigration lines of Bangkok’s old Don Muang Airport we were greeted by two Canadian families waiting to put fragrant Jasmin garlands around our necks and we were stuffed into two old vehicles for our first look at the snarled Bangkok traffic, eyes wide-open and sweating buckets.
That first week we all slept together at Ray and Betty’s, one room for all of us, the air-conditioning working at maximum. Nothing felt familiar, not taking a shower with lukewarm water as the ants marched one-by-one on the shower wall. Even going to Kentucky Fried Chicken witnessing Thais all dressed up and cutting their finger-licking chicken with their forks and knives! This was indeed a New World.
The next month was spent figuring out how to buy furniture, groceries, and a second-hand car. We had to adjust to torrential rains and humidity. Our laneway was continually full of swamp and rain water and we hired a man to pump out the water to prevent flooding our driveway. We had to learn how to relate to a Thai house-helper who quit after a few months, the first of many! Then there were the instant noodles my kids loved and I hated, and a son’s hatred of rice, which I loved! I remember the fear of driving manual on the wrong side of the road, but for them it was the right side. In our wooden home on stilts we learned to aim the fans for maximum human coverage. Each morning it was pitch black as we prepared to go to language school before 6am to beat the traffic jams. Honestly, we easily spent the first couple of years living in and out of culture shock.
Oddly enough those days don’t seem all that long ago, yet it is exactly 25 years ago to this very day. Not many people work with the same organisation for that long these days. I think many people within my organisation know a bit how we have lived in this exotic New World. Some upon meeting us ask how we decided upon Thailand, but I usually don’t get around telling the whole story, of how I became interested in cultures and languages and people groups. Or of the day I cried so hard for war-torn Cambodia that I thought my heart would burst. Maybe some day I will write about my Dutch-Reformed spiritual roots and how the Pentecostal message changed our Spiritual World. I’d love to tell how a teenaged boy was already drawn to an atypical life by reading books like ‘Peace Child’ and ‘Lords of the Earth’. Those stories of another continent (Indonesia) opened an Avatar-like world that I never knew existed. Something was kindled in me that would flame into service in cultures and contexts not my own.
Beginnings are usually the hardest anytime, they demand the most of us. Though Patricia and I looked forward to the challenge of proficiency in the Thai language it took hours, days, and months, and yes, even years learning to speak Thailand’s tonal language. Not easy, especially with a family. In my first Christmas message I spoke a tone wrong and inadvertently changed the angel’s message to the shepherds to, “Behold we bring you Good Rice.” That was indeed good news that day in our context! Though I loved how Thais would always encourage us and say, ‘Wow, your Thai pronunciation is so good!’ I knew better! It took courage every time to teach and preach in this strange-sounding language and I begged God to helped me more times than I can count.
Being a white family in the early nineties in Thailand also carried a novelty factor with the Thais, especially in villages outside of Bangkok. One time I was in a far flung village and a little boy saw me as he was riding his bike. He lost his balance and fell off. As I walked toward him, he got back on and sped away, fast! Another time in Nong Khai, where we planted our first Thai church, I borrowed a rickshaw. I put my three boys in the back and drove them through town. If only I had a camera to film the faces of those who caught this rare sight of a slender white man and his boys. They gave thumbs up as they called out to their friends to see this strange westerner pretending to do the most humble job on the social ladder.
Maybe it was this curiosity and willingness to try new things, go to new places that helped me to not return to ‘normal’ Canadian life. If you saw some of what I have eaten or where I have slept at times you might think us strange. We did it for the gospel. All of it. We have sweat enough water over the years to fill a pool and can tell you of the long weeks suffering from what the Thais called running stomach! After our first four years in Thailand we were skinnier than when we were married and that was already skinny! But I was happy, I was fulfilling the promise I made on that picnic bench, to give it our all even when it was extremely uncomfortable or embarrassing or lacking the immediate results that we felt God deserved.
About halfway through our 25 years I experienced a desire for God to do something new in me, to open new doors of influence. As I began to study the life of Joshua I took note of the correlation between ‘the courage of one’ and ‘the benefit of many’. If Joshua could not find the courage to act, to overcome his self-doubt and Moses’ long leadership shadow, the result would be many people losing out on opportunities to see or feel God in new ways. Stepping into the swirling waters of the Jordan without Moses’ miracle stick would be his biggest step of faith. Without Joshua’s courage many would lose out on a preferred destiny!
How impacting Joshua’s life would be on my own. Twenty-five years ago we took the risk of working with Thai Youth, a role I was uncomfortable with, yet it resulted in hundreds maybe thousands of youth encouraged to give their all to God’s way. We never thought we would host teams, develop a child sponsorship program, chair a board for a ministry among children born with HIV or bring leadership training to other countries. Yet we stepped out of our comfort zone and gave of ourselves. None of this would be part of our story without the courage to step out into the unknown. Even today I’ll meet someone who will say, “I was at that camp you spoke at and I gave my life to Christ!”
If it is true, and I think it is, that life shrinks or expands according to the measure of courage, then each courageous step into the unknown carries great promise. Today we find ourselves again needing courage to minister in a new way and in a new culture and context; Europe! We came to Paris knowing no one, just the two of us with a dream and no team. We did a lot of walking asking God that each step would be guided to bring His love wherever we found ourselves. We knew that this step of obedience risked much, that we could be misunderstood by many, and we were. It resulted in the stretching of our faith and finances. And yet we heard an inner voice saying, “Have courage, don’t be afraid… as I was with you in Thailand I am with you in Paris!”
When I look back, I see so much of God in my steps, 25 years of ordered steps, I cannot doubt that He has us here and now for such a time as this. I cannot say how long we’ll be in this Once Again New World. My promise to God, however,is the same I made on that cold and damp day in Quebec, I will give it my all as long as you provide the strength and the resources. And we are seeing lives, French lives, drawn closer to their creator, and we believe there is much more to come.