Interview that Missionary!

Q. Peter, you must meet a lot of interesting people in all your travels. Can you name some people you’ve met and introduce an unlikely friendship you have made?

A. Well, let me think, I met some homeless people on the street in Skid Row, Los Angeles. There are quite a lot of them there! Here in Bangkok I met up with some old friends from college days. That’s always cool. And I sat on a bed of a one room home in a small town of Northern Vietnam to eat with six family members a huge meal prepared by the mother. Then I had the wackiest kind of conversation eating noodles on the street in Haiphong with total strangers who could not speak a word of English. When I told the owner I was from Canada he didn’t seem to know where that was. He kept saying, “New York?” Lots of laughs and sign language later we shook hands warmly. But I’d have to say that perhaps one person who I will never forget meeting this year is the guy who sat beside me during one of my long flights. I had had a particularly difficult week. As I found my seat on the plane I was hoping the seat next to me would not be taken. I hate sharing my elbow space. It looked good until I saw a guy heading my way wearing a ranger’s hat and toting a Bible. My first thought was, “Please go behind me.” I mean this guy looked like a hard-core Bible thumper dude! But he sat next to me and started to read his Bible. I think he may have been a bit younger than me, but no less experienced in life! He noticed I was reading Max Lucado and the conversation began. As we talked I found out that we had lived a life similar in a lot of ways. He was able to talk me through some of my struggles and it really helped. I don’t believe in coincidences but I believe with all my heart that I walked into something God had already seen, already worked out.

Q. What were you doing on Skid Row in Los Angeles?!

A. Skid Row. Well, I kinda of seen it before from the winsdshield of a car, just passing through to get to somewhere else. This last time I will never forget. During a conference on activism that happened this past July in L.A. I was intrigued that we weren’t there to just sit and listen.  We had some outdoor jobs to do. In the middle of the hardest meanest part of the city our job was to serve food to the homeless. More than 100 tables were set up with white table cloths to seat about 800 people. Over a thousand showed up! This moment was more amazing than all the well known guest speakers that day. There is nothing more eye-opening – heart-opening, ear-opening – than serving the homeless and listening to their stories. One woman said to my friend, Dave, “I can’t believe it… last year I was serving food at a shelter and this year, well, here I am being served.”

Q. Thailand was in the news a lot this last year. How did that affect your family and your work?

A. Ya, it got pretty unpredictable over here. It was quite strange to have soldiers everywhere, to have curfews where we had to be home by 9 p.m. and to see our city on the world news every day. We never knew from one day to the next whether or not the school our children attended would be open, whether or not we could use the sky train or if we could even have church. When it was all over, our family went into the area of the protest camps and helped with the clean-up in the city. It was really cool to see everyone working together, to hear people singing and companies giving away free water. The city has been rebuilding the damaged parts, but the most modern shopping mall that got burned down is still an eyesore. So far it’s only just the scaffolding that is going up. But where there is scaffolding there is a plan, right? Scaffolding just looks messy, but it is evidence that something is being built… something beautiful. I guess that’s how we can see the world and the Way God does things.

Q. In the past year you’ve been invited to speak at youth gatherings, not just in Thailand but also in places like Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, and even at PAOC’s Lakeshore Youth Camp. You and Pat help lead a young adult church in the middle of Bangkok. How does someone from your generation (Baby Boomer) stay relevant in order to speak into the lives of the younger generations (Gen X and Millennials)?

A. My wife and kids help me with this area. A lot! Pat pointed out to me some words of Mark Battersea, “Irrelevance is irreverent.” This really struck a chord in me. Pat and I talk about it a lot and have come to realize that no one – no generation, no denomination, and no theologian- no one can catch up to what God is doing. I certainly don’t think God keeps doing the same thing over and over in the same ways. I also think that even if we did somehow ‘catch up’ to Him we could still never keep up pace with Him. People study Him long and hard and they become diligent students of The Word, then swipe their hands back and forth in a job-well-done sort of way and say, “There now, we have him all figured out.” God is always on the move. There is no ‘still life’ portrait of God or Christianity. It’s like trying to paint a picture of a river. Once you finish the painting, you realize that it doesn’t look the same anymore. It moves. The Word says, “I will pour out my Spirit on ALL flesh” and I like to see that as a Divine Threat. Just like Eli made the young Samuel get out of his own sleepy-time bed and hear from God himself (even though Eli was the trained Man-Of-God, the Priest-Who-Went-To-Seminary and even though it would have been risk-free and tidy to just tell Samuel what he thought God was saying) we want to make sure each generation is getting out of their slumber and is hearing from God for themselves, responding from their own ‘flesh’ and presenting the movement of Holy Spirit in a way that not only resonates with their own generation but is born out of their own culture. The faith of another generation won’t – and definitely shouldn’t- look the same as the one before it; it won’t feel as clear and comfortable for the older Christians. I’ve learned that as an older Christian I need to get comfortable with that discomfort. It’s worth it.

Q. You talk about culture within a generation. You must have seen a huge difference in the culture of young Vietnamese in relation to culture in young Thais or North Americans. How do you approach this younger generation within their own popular culture?

A. You ask pretty hard questions! Well, I’ve found that there are definitely aspects of humanity that cross all culture. It’s another part of being relevant; constantly searching for the parts of life that aren’t smeared in Western thought or experience. I pray and ask Holy Spirit to keep showing me, translating for me, what the culture of God is and how I can speak His language. Young people –whether they are in a cramped refugee detention center in Bangkok or studying law at Harvard- can have a desire to make a difference in their world. However, we must never forget that not all young people have choices about where they live or work, or who they will marry. So we have to be diligent to go to the deeper commonality. The bottom line is this: What is a Message that will resonate in the heart of a young marketing expert in Markham, Ontario, as well as the young Muslim girl selling goat meat in the morning market in Kathmandu, Nepal? How do I present the idea of ‘the call of God on your life’ to the young guy who is expected to take over his father’s coffee shop in Hanoi and the young guy who is preparing to inherit his father’s car dealership in Calgary, Alberta? I have to always ask myself if my message on God’s blessing could translate for the young HIV positive woman or is it an exclusive message for the privileged.

Q. Okay, one last question, you guys just entered your 20th year as missionaries, how much longer?

A. Well, as long as God helps to provide physical health, family health, passion and hunger, ability, finances and if these things are in place then maybe we’ll be in Southeast Asia for a long time. If that all dried up all of a sudden, who knows what that might mean for us as a family? Actually it’s not just about the place, that’s just geography. It’s also about our heart and that’s where God makes his home in me. I want him to enjoy that home wherever I am.