A Quarter of a Century!

_MG_0413Today 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.FamilyThailand earlyyears1991

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!

Thaiyouth prayHow 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 thaPetersharest 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.





Singing a Prayer in a Paris-diocese.

On the way to the Canadian Embassy in Paris to get my new passport we took a little detour from the regular route and saw a golden cross on an ancient building way up high.  “Cool, lets go and take a quick peek,” I said to Patricia! Knowing how much I love looking at old churches she grabbed my wrist and put it up to her eye level to note my watch and said, “Do we really have time?” We didn’t have much time, but  I responded in a matter-of-fact manner, “Of course we do!”
We lit towards the church and saw a narrow passage, thinking it would lead to some big door to the inside we took it. The door was there, but locked shut. We followed the passage way and entered the courtyardPat'lldaArmeeniane to a large wall painting that caught our eye. I was mesmerised by it.  As I took a photo of Patricia, a young man came out of a door and asked in French, “Would you like to see the church?” Immediately I smiled and asked, “Can we?”

He unlocked the same large door we had passed, turned on the lights and explained how he was a deacon for five years in this church built around 1904. He had a quick smile and a slight speech impediment that kind of made me feel more at ease. He said on Saturdays the place would be packed. We went inside to see gorgeous carpets covering the floor and the altar area, above a single but wonderful basilica style of ceiling.

Then I saw stairs. I see stairs and I want to go up. “Can we?” I asked. And up to the second floor we went, I was disappointed that the organ was locphoto 2 copyked away. So we looked down below, chairs, lots, lonely empty chairs.  And above. Chandeliers. And a majestic fresco of Jesus.

We went down again and entered a small side prayer room. After some more get-to-know-you conversation, I said to the young Armenian man, “Do you want to pray together?” He said, “Oui.” I reached out my hand to pray and immediately he walked out of the prayer room. We followed. He grabbed a book by the altar, flipped it open and then and there without any explanation he sang, in loud baritone voice, an ancient prayer in Armenian. I bowed my head immediately. A holy moment for Patricia and I.  I knew the song-prayer was over when his long ‘Aaaamen’ slowed to a finishing low note. Without missing a beat I knew it was my turn to pray. And so I began my spoken prayer, almost a whisper, and thanked my God for brotherhood made possible by Jesus. I thanked my God for his love for all nations. I thanked the God of creation for the beauty of this young man with a voice thick with passion.

petedaArmenianAs we left through the same door that we entered I said to him, “Thanks for that moment. We truly are brothers!” He smiled largely, “They say there is only one God and therefore we all are brothers.” I thought of the profoundness of that simple faith statement. We are all brothers.

Paris Peace

“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

Rosa Luxemburg

Paris, who doesn’t dream about living in Paris? Yet in those ‘lost-in-my thoughts’ moments of our transition to Paris I  found myself thinking that the decision to move from Asia, our home for twenty-two years, to another continent was either the biggest mistake I’ve ever made or the greatest adventure of my lifetime.  It took a considerable amount of effort, loss, and sacrifice to become ‘un habitant‘ of the most visited city on earth. For weeks I wondered if the prize of being Parisian was worth the pursuit.

To prepare ourselves for this eventual move, my wife, Patricia, and I visited Paris twice and each time I was resistant to the proverbial “I love Paris” virus. It wasn’t happening for me. I moped. Having enough of my negative outlook Patricia spoke with frustration in her voice, “Why can’t you be exited about this adventure with me?” Maybe it was the long hard goodbye to Thailand, the challenge of working with teenaged boys for a year in Germany and the continuous transition that soured me. I craved familiarity not more adventure. I wanted to have control of my destiny. What I didn’t realize then was that in a strange way I needed Paris more than Paris needed me.

Finding peace in Paris came distressingly slowly. I am not even sure if I found it or if by God’s grace it simply fell on me! Our first month was lived in the Goutte D’Or quarters, the most chaotic neighbourhood of Paris. The ad had said near Montmartre; ah perfect,

We could actually see the top of Sacré-Coeur from our bedroom.

We could actually see the top of Sacré-Coeur from our bedroom.

a future artist’s dream place. We rented the flat on-line for one month because of the artist in Patricia and the description said it had a view of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. We unwittingly found ourselves in the middle of little Africa!

I chuckle now when I think back about the first time we walked through our neighborhood. An elderly French lady warned us to be extra cautious in this quarter as we surfaced from ‘ligne 4’ out through the Chateau Rouge metro station. She said, “Il y’a beaucoup de voleurs ici!” There are lots of robbers here!

How the memory of walking at that midnight hour through littered streets laced with smells of urine and rotten vegetables will stay with me forever. I was visibly upset and I lagged behind, not so much to protect my little family from those voleurs, but more-or-less in silent protest of my new surroundings. It added fuel to my negative state of mind confirming that we were making a huge mistake moving to Paris! My daughter, Alycia-Rae, turned back, saw me and said, “Dad, are you okay?” Intuitive for a fifteen year old girl. I would ask myself the same question often.

That first month we squeezed through the crowded streets used for black marketed goods. Fake jewellery, pirated movies, sun glasses, purses and stolen phones were being pushed in our faces. Daily we could hear from our rented flat Chateau Rougea crazy black lady yelling every day at passersby in some African dialect. One time we were relieved when she decided to sing poorly using her empty water bottle as a microphone!

Our nearest metro station, Chateau Rouge, was one of the busiest in Paris. It shocked us to see dozens of people shamelessly jump over the metro turnstiles daily without paying. At times we saw blood splattered on the walls of the metro entrance! The there was the time at three in the morning, unable to sleep, my wife witnessed a break-in from our balcony and called the police who arrived in three minutes and roughed up the wrong people. All this chaos, crime, street arguments, yelling lady and even violent protests against the Jews in our neighborhood was throwing me off balance.

“Dad are you okay?” That question again! Would I ever love Paris, this City of Light?

Finding a permanent peaceful place in Paris became our obsession. We looked at many different types of apartments and neighbourhoods. I couldn’t believe how small these places were. I finally got excited about one beautifully renovated Haussmann apartment near the presidential palace, but it had no vibe or community. Another smaller place was open and though it did have a ‘Parisian village’ feel, I didn’t like the tiny size. Patricia asked me pointedly, “You want an apartment or a community to live in?” Reluctantly I settled on ‘the community’, in the 12th district with a neighbourhood that felt truly Parisian.

From that newly rented tiny Paris apartment on 44 Rue Crozatier, we discovered the markets, art studios, bakeries, bicycle shops, and even a converted railway track turned promenade lined with flowers and trees. Every walk became a time of discovery. I didn’t ‘love’ my apartment, always comparing it to the spacious four floors I left in Bangkok, but I loved to walk this most walkable Paris.

One day I landed on an ancient Catholic Church where I would often come during the day to sit, read, write and pray, (including this blog). There, I think, I trembled with joy mixed with peace for the first time. Like I said, it just happened. It fell into my lap like a gift. For the first time since we moved there I became at ease living into this Paris possibility. My attitude changed overnight, I had peace that the Lord would teach me much about myself, about life and why he had placed us in Paris.