Reflecting back on Christmas here in Thailand, I have a few observations: 1) It get’s a little colder than normal here but it’s not cold. I am still wearing shorts most afternoons. I missed the cold more than expected. I missed the hopeful anticipation of snow, wearing boots and scarves, the coziness of a hot beverage when there is a chill in the air. But I’ll get over it. 2) The celebration of Christmas, although a good attempt is made, is no where near what I am used to at home. People work and go to school on Christmas day. Need I say more? 3) Kids, upon receiving a gift, are the same everywhere. Some shriek with glee while others hide a shy smile, trying to mask their excitement. Some kids are grateful for what they were given and others glance at their friend’s gift with jealous comparison. Some tear open their presents, and others hold onto the wrapped gift for awhile longer, not quite ready for the moment to reach it’s culmination. 4) White-bearded Santas look slightly out of place here, almost creepy. However, I decided the malls still needed them. 5) Most people who do decorate for Christmas, decide to leave their decorations up year-round. ( I noticed this last year)
All in all, I found myself missing Christmas back home. Until December 28 that is. There was a late Christmas celebration at one of the children’s home. My expectations of this Christmas party were low, based on the past two weeks of “Christmas celebration.” However, upon arriving I was surprised to find a huge turkey dinner buffet awaiting us! This was the first time I had turkey in Thailand and I certainly did not hold back. Take note, I’m eating for two now. Following an abundant meal there were games, singing and of course, presents. Each child received a backpack filled with new clothes. To watch the excitement and joy as a five year old carefully pulls out a brand new t-shirt and shorts and gently lays it out on the ground to observe this treasure he just received, it fills your heart. I loved every minute of it! But there was one moment in particular that I will cherish forever.
Before opening the presents, we were instructed to get in small groups and pray with and for each other. I’m going to be honest now and admit, these settings are always a little awkward for me. But I did as we were told. In my group there was Billy, another adult, and two children from the home. Following a brief discussion on how this process should take place, it was decided that the adult would lead us all in prayer. And he prayed a great prayer, something to do with Christmas and remembering the reason for the season. However, following the “amen” the two children quickly informed us that the prayer was not sufficient. “We forgot to pray for Annie’s baby!” You must understand, no one else in the group was prayed for by name and that really didn’t matter much, but how could we forget the child inside me? So we all closed our eyes again and Caleb, a young boy, prayed for our child. In his broken English, so we could understand, he prayed a very simple prayer. I remember two lines: “God, please make this child be good and that he will show his love to you.” It was beautiful.
I have thought about that prayer several times since then. What was it that caused the children to be adamant that our little unborn child not be forgotten in the prayer? Why was he so important to them? As always I am without answers, only speculations. Maybe it is as simple as children remembering other children. Maybe my increasingly large stomach could not go unnoticed or ignored. Perhaps they have been told from early on, that all children are important and a gift from God. Possibly, growing up in a children’s home, they struggle to believe this, or maybe it is just the opposite. What I know is this, a young boy, once abandoned and neglected by those who were supposed to cherish him, would not allow another to be forgotten.
And there you have it, the incredible message of Christmas. God gave us a gift, his precious Son, and we cast Him aside. We despised and rejected Him and left Him to die. Yet He did not abandon us, he did not forsake us. He knows that we matter to God and He spends every moment crying out to God on our behalf: “Make them good people, cause them to love.”
Every Saturday I coach a little boys soccer team at a children’s home. One of the younger boys on the team is named Luca. Luca is a lot of fun to coach. He is excited to play, he works hard, and almost always has a smile on his face. Saturday mornings our truck pulls up to the home and one of the first boys I see is Luca. When he spots us arriving through the gate he grabs his cleats, puts them on his feet, grabs the balls from the back of the truck and runs to meet us at the field. As soon as he gets to the field he promptly kicks off his cleats and begins dribbling the ball around. And the sidelines are where his cleats remain until the completion of practice. Even more humorous about this, is the fact that Luca is not the only boy who prefers to play in bare feet. Sometimes the boys will share a pair of cleats, each taking one boot. Most often they will place the boot on their weaker foot, leaving the strong foot bare and available to shoot with. It all made very little sense to me so the other day, after spotting Luca’s cleats once again lying lifeless on the field, I asked Oom, one of our Thai coaches, about this precarious situation. He explained to me that he used to do the same. Oom also grew up in a children’s home and every so often he would be given a pair of cleats. But as a young boy he found the cleats to be uncomfortable, awkward, and in his words, “I thought my foot was much stronger without the cleat.”
What a silly thought, yet how similar am I when it comes to my perspective on gifts, talents, strengths and even blessings. When someone asks me what my gifts or talents are, I immediately begin to think about what it is that I am good at or the things that come easy to me. Yet if I were to look back on my life over the last 5, 10, or even 15 years, I would have to admit that the answer to the that question has changed over the course of time. And it is not because suddenly I became good at something that I previously struggled with. Rather it is because God has placed me in various situations, brought about different circumstances that forced me to grow, challenged me, allowed me to fail, picked me up and challenged me again. When I first thought about being a missionary in a foreign country, I thought that because God called me to go, He would make the process easy and dare I say fun and rewarding. I thought I would slip on my missionary cleats and walk with ease across the boarders, the culture, yes even the language barrier. I thought my mind, soul, and spirit would magically be strong enough to combat any negative thought or emotion that dared to challenge me. When people asked me how it is that I know God has called me to go to Thailand my immediate response would be, “because I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” But now, a year a half later, it is time for true confessions. There are days, in fact many days, where I would rather be anywhere else than here in Thailand. Soon after arriving here I found that the missionary cleats are not so comfortable. They take a lot of getting used to. I have stumbled, I have fallen, I have cried and cried and cried because all I want to do is kick them off my feet and go home. I have thrown my language book across the room because there are a million tones which all have a zillion rules that do not make any sense to me. At times I get frustrated with the children when listening and following instructions is the last thing on their agenda. Once you see a moving creature roaming around your dinner, Thai food becomes less exotic and more suspicious. And don’t get me started on the driving rules, or should I say lack of rules, here in this country. Skype is a beautiful invention that allows us to stay connected with family and for that I am so thankful, but so far it has not allowed me to go watch my nephew play quarterback for his freshman football team, or to help my niece get ready for her first high school dance or to hold my new nephew moments after his birth. I miss silly things like warm fire places, pumpkin spice latte’s and black licorice. But I’m getting carried away so let me bring you back around to the illustration God showed me through Luca’s bare feet. Sometimes God’s greatest gifts, our greatest strengths, our greatest blessings, are those for which we must struggle for and stumble over in order to achieve and receive. Sometimes we have to take several painful steps, even walk a few painful miles before the shoe begins to fit. And even then, there are always a few rocks that get stuck underneath the toe along the way. But if we don’t take the journey we will never see the full potential that God has gifted us with. I still have far to go, the shoes are still awkward, but the truth is, my confidence does not lie in the shoes, it lies in the one that gave me the shoes. So why do I believe God has called me here to Thailand…well I do have some fun and rewarding moments but I will have to hold off on giving an answer. I’ll let you know in 5 to 10 years…or more.
People often ask me if I am or was ever a soccer player. To which I always respond, “no absolutely not.” It’s not that I don’t enjoy the game, in fact I very much enjoy running around and kicking the ball, which, if you saw me play that is exactly what I do. I am not what I consider to be "a player." However, truth be told, I was, at one time, a soccer player. My resume may not be too impressive, and certainly my years as a player were short, but I was in fact a student of the game. When I was in 3rd grade, my mother signed me up to play on the community recreational team. I guess she figured I would be thrilled to play on a real soccer team since every day after school I would grab a soccer ball and start kicking it against the side of the house. Or perhaps, and more likely, she figured that if I was a part of a team she would cease to hear the rhythm of the soccer ball repeatedly hit her house at 3:30 every day. In either case, she signed me up to play. The thing about it was, I didn’t really want to be a part of a team for the simple, and at the time assumed logical, reason that other people whom I did not know were frightening, even IF they were other just 8 year old girls. But against my will I was joined with this team. So every practice I would tearfully and very timidly hold my mothers hand and walk across a large field to where the other girls were playing. It took me a while to warm up, but after a few practices I felt pretty proud of myself that I was able to let go of the safe hand of my mother and join the other girls. That is until coach announced….GAME DAY. I thought we were doing pretty good with just the 12 of us. No one mentioned another team, and referees, and crowds of people watching. I was not ready. And sure enough the first game day came and went and I never left my mother’s side. I never entered the field or as it is known in the soccer world “the pitch.” I was in the clear…until the next Saturday, the next game. Once again I clung to my mother’s hand, I hung on for dear life as the coach approached us. He gently but firmly explained that I was needed to play. We did not have enough players to compete if I did not play. Where were those other lucky girls??? And then my mother did something I could not believe, She let go of my hand and she left me with the coach. She abandoned me! Coach got down on one knee so I could see his very large, scary face and said, “you don’t have to move, you just have to get on the field,” and that was the end of the discussion. He stood up, took me by the hand and directed me to the exact spot in which I was instructed to stand. And that was my debut as a full-fledged soccer player. I wish I could tell you exactly what I did after that but to be honest I don’t remember any more of that game. I do know, that I continued with the same team for three more years and absolutely loved being on the soccer field and competing. I just needed a gentle hand and small nudge.
The other day I was talking with a pastor that we work with here in Chiang Mai. We were talking and watching Billy as he coached the team. The pastor was sharing about the boys, that most of them were in grade 12 and would be thinking about their future soon. She said that her and her husband have been talking with the boys, trying to encourage them to pursue some goals that in their minds, might be a little out of reach. For example, in the U.S., it is assumed that most students will attend university after high school. However, here in Thailand, for many students, university is a dream that few have the means to pursue. The pastor is encouraging the boys to think about a future that many of their peers have already let go of. So we talked about this for a while and then the conversation switched to Billy. We talked about his vision for the ministry, his goals for the team, and his coaching style. In the conversation she said this, “the other day during the game I watched the way Billy coached and I was impressed.” Allow me to interject here and quickly point out that this pastor knows nothing about the game of soccer so consequently I was very eager to hear what she was so impressed about. She went on to explain, “every time he would take a player from the bench and send him onto the field, he would walk over to the boy, take his hand, and lead him to the field. He wasn’t like the other coach who would just yell and point. He is gentle with the guys and I really like that.” Now I know you must be thinking that I am paraphrasing so as to impress or make the story sound better, but those were her exact words.
The other day I had quite an embarrassing moment. I won’t go as far as to say it was my most embarrassing moment but it was awkward nonetheless. There was a team of about fifteen college students helping us at our practice. So we decided to open up with a fun game of “dinosaur.” The purpose of this game is simple. The “dinosaurs” run around, soccer ball in hand, and try to tag the kids with the ball. Kids love the game, therefore we love the game. However, at one point in the game, an observation came to me; the “dinosaurs” are not playing with any heart. They didn’t quite seem to understand the potential delight that this game brought about. So I decided it was time to show them just how much “fun” this game could be. As soon as I got the ball I began to run around like a crazy dinosaur. I tagged one, two, three kids. They were gleefully screaming at the overzealous dinosaur. And then it happened….I spotted an overjoyed yet overconfident kid across the field and with focused determination I ran, I ran with all my heart. What I failed to do was to scope my surroundings and identify potential obstacles. About halfway to my target it happened…the incident I now refer to as “the great collision.” A small boy about three years old, unaware of what was about to happened, emerged from the large legs of the nearby dinosaurs. In my defense, he was small and almost everyone else on the field was large. I didn’t see him coming. It seemed to happen in slow motion. At the last second I saw him but it was too late. I did my best to jump over him but my legs are not as young and spry as they used to be. I flew threw the air, not as high as I hoped, knocked him down to the ground with my flailing legs, and then I landed…face first…in the dirt. The first person I saw when I lifted my face from the ground was my husband, Billy. He looked at me astonished and speechless. I turned around to face my audience. The game came to a complete standstill. No one moved, all was silent, everyone stared…for about three seconds. And then came the wailing. The small boy had just realized his fate or shall I say his face… full of dirt and blood and he began to cry. And boy did he cry! My first thought was to attend to the small boy but truthfully this was because I was hoping to take as much attention off of myself as possible. I carried the boy to the water stand to get him cleaned up and hydrated, hoping that soon his cries would cease. But they didn’t. He kept on crying…and crying…he cried a lot! In the midst of his cries I could hear him, in Thai of course, crying out for his mother. I had no choice but to return the boy to his mom. With his older sister guiding the way, we made the slow trudge through the small neighborhood to the home of the boy. As he cried, people stared. Here I was, a red-headed white girl, dirt covering my face, carrying a small Thai boy, tears streaking his face, his mouth spitting out dirt, crying for his mother. I like to think that I am here in Thailand to bring smiles to kids’ faces but inevitably I also bring tears. When we reached his home the boy’s mother was nowhere to be found. His father, however, came to see what all the fuss was about. The boy’s sister explained to the father what happened and with a little smile on his face he stretched out his hands and took the crying boy in his arms saying, “lets go get you cleaned up.” That young boy had carried on for about twenty minutes but as soon as the father took him in his arms, the boy’s crying turned into muffled breathing as he began to collect himself. There was nothing I could do to stop the tears. In that moment, only the Father could comfort, only the Father could speak his language, only the Father could clean his wounds, only the Father could take the pain away.
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
This kid had never expressed any affection toward me. It was not that I felt he was longing for affection, that he ever needed a hug or a playful jostle of the hair. He is a happy kid, a tough kid, enjoys soccer and having fun. And for the most part, yesterday he was that same kid…except for a few moments. It caught me by surprise, a small head tucking himself underneath my arm. For a second I thought he was maybe just trying to use me as shade from the sun, in which case I didn’t mind. It was a very hot morning and I was longing for some shade as well. But as the morning progressed I continued to feel a little head making it’s way underneath my arm. I soon got the hint that this boy was just looking for someone to hold him a little closer that day. Maybe he had a rough week or maybe he was just a little tired that day. Or maybe he was thinking about the mom he never got to grow up with or the mom he wished he had. I don’t know the reason but I got the hint and in a small way, certainly not the same way, but in small way I could relate.
Today is mother’s day. My mom has been gone for three years now but the deep longing for her embrace does not escape me. Her friendship, her wisdom, her voice, her love is missing from my days. Yet, those moments are missing from my life only because at one time I had the opportunity to experience them. I have wonderful memories of my mom that I hold and cherish and can take with me throughout the rest of my life. What do I do with a little boy who has had no such memories? As far as I know, he has a good life, surrounded by people who love and care for him, even as a mom should. But they are not his mom. I wonder if he misses what he should have had. Does he see other kids with their mom and wonder what his was like? Or does he question the situation at all? Maybe he just lives the life he knows and on the days when he needs a little more affection, he finds a loving arm that he can rest his weary head under. The beauty of this picture is that God knows our need for affection; “He will cover you with his feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.” (Ps.91:4) I cannot answer you the question of why this boy grew up without his mom, what I do know is that God longs to give him the deepest affection, to hold him close, to show him that he is loved. I pray one day this boy will experience this love…a love that goes even deeper than a mother’s embrace.
As for today…well, my mom is resting her head under those strong and loving arms...and for that I will celebrate her life.
Happy Mother’s Day
Our team is small. We are all very different from each other. We all come from different places and backgrounds. Billy and I come from the U.S. but from opposite sides. Yet somehow, God brought us together as one and now we live in Thailand. Yohei is from Japan and his favorite sport is baseball. But God brought him here to Thailand to coach soccer. He met his wife here. Her name is Ant and she is Thai. Sanan comes from Burma. Sanan was taken as a very young boy to serve in the Shan army. God rescued him out of the army and brought him to Thailand where he serves God here with us. Oom is also from Burma. His family fled to Thailand as refugees when Oom was just a boy. Thailand is where Oom grew up and Thailand is where God has called him to live and to serve. And then there is Ayaka and Brett and Jack. God has called them all here temporarily. Ayaka is also from Japan. God has given her a desire to use Sports ministry in Japan but for the next two years He has called her here to Thailand where she serves with contagious passion. Jack is currently a college student at Messiah College where he plays soccer for the school team. Last year, his team won the national championship. Jack loves people and for a few months God called him to love the people of Thailand. In a couple weeks Jack will go back home to finish school and to continue serving God through soccer. And last but not least, we have Brett. Brett is Billy’s younger brother. Brett also played soccer for Messiah College and has a passion to continuing playing. But for right now, God has called him to use his gifts as a coach to serve the kids here in Thailand. At this time, this is the team of people God has brought together. We don’t always get along, but we love each other. One of us may fall, but someone is there to help them up. When one is weak, another is strong. If someone is sick, another cares for them. If someone wanders away, another will find him and bring him back. We are brothers and sisters, we are family. We’re all unique, gifted, a little strange, sinful, beloved children of God who are called here to Thailand for a single purpose; to love God and to love others. We do this in many different ways but under one name only, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Without Him, we are just a strange group of people hanging out in Thailand. With Him, the impossible is possible, the weak are strong, the team is complete, and our purpose is worth the journey.