February 2011

“Teach Christ always. If necessary, use words.” – St Francis of Assisi

It is always such a pleasure to spend time with my CHE friends and colleagues. We have just wrapped up a great four day conference with representatives from Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, India, PNG, Papua and Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. When I listen to these folks give reports on their activities, I feel like they are family. They understand the importance of meeting the needs of the whole person if you truly want to transform individuals and families.

I am reasonably sure that St Francis Assisi was aware of the verse in 1 Peter 3:15 that says “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence”. But how can you give an answer if no one asks a question? Why would they ask a question if they don’t see you living your life in a way that is different from the rest of the world around you? When people see us loving the unlovable, sharing what we have with those who don’t have, and living out the greatest commands (Love God, Love others) THEN they ask questions. They want to know why we do it, day in and day out. Why would we bother? What drives us? What do we get out of it? THAT is when we use words, because then it has become necessary.

You might well ask, “But what if it takes two years? What if they are of a different faith? What if they are prostitutes? What if they are drug addicts or alcoholics?” Love them anyway, it will get them thinking and maybe they will ask the question.

This is what CHE is about, genuinely caring about all the needs of the whole person, responding to them with no strings attached, and showing them their value in God’s eyes. Then we have earned the right to answer the deep spiritual questions they long to hear. It was such an encouragement to hear report after report of how communities and individuals are being changed by this approach. It was such a privilege to be able to share the work that has been going on in Cambodia during this past year. It was such a challenge to hear about the task that lies ahead of us.

It is that task, of changing lives through the power of Christ’s word and His sacrifice, that we ask you to pray for. God is doing wonderful things in South-East Asia. People have been praying for the 10/40 window that runs through North Africa for years. In our time we are beginning to see the Lord answer those prayers. Great changes are coming for the kingdom. Those changes will happen in South-East Asia as well if we continue to be faithful to the one who has called us to care for the whole world, and for all His people, no matter where they live.

This one is from a friend and colleague, Corrina Austin, whose blog (http://corrinaaustin.wordpress.com/) keeps me connected to life that I once knew and loved:


Something in the wind, or a glance from the sun
…and in unison, they lift their expectant faces,
pure and white,
this congregation of grandiflorum

I cannot hear it, but their song lifts
into the air
a secret chant, a sigh of strings
an ache of vibrato
disguised as stillness

Later in bed, watching the moon rise
I think of them out there,
trembling in dew-fall,
still waiting
their faces glowing holy in the moonlight.

I have challenged my students to write a poem or a song and told them I would post it on my blog if they did. Here is one by Kamilah Kamil:

I’ve had too much good medicine.
It sounds rehearsed;
words lose meaning,
become authority weaning.

A change of sheets is needed
in thoughts, if not in deed
Renewal is not in repetition,
but rather, in reevaluation.

My new friend’s a devil’s advocate.
He solidifies my faith of late
Few can comprehend
why his words I contemplate.

For Kurt Cobain, poet, songwriter, social critic, who was born this day in 1967. Some musings about the superficial world he saw, and ultimately despaired of.

It is artful, but is it art?
Does it touch the soul and stir the heart?
Does it evoke a yearning for what’s real,
Or is it merely clever artifice
Without feeling or sense?

Such nonsense clogs the airways
Of our collective consciousness.
Our radios whine with doggerel
That sniffs the shores, but fails to find
A continent of meaning or intent.

Visuals and images set our retinas reeling,
And as they fade pale ghosts appear
And gesture, discontent, inarticulate,
Pointing to some vague and indefinable reality
We once knew and can no longer see.

Our sense is trivialized
As we embrace what is endlessly facile.
“Here we are, now entertain us,”
We demand. Then kill the poet
With his own hand.

When I was a young man I was beset with dogs yammering at my soul and wanted to find some relief; dogs of uncertainty and doubt, of self-denial and confusion; dogs of anger and bitterness, regret and a gnawing despair. After the heady days of youthful possibilities I faced a future of limited alternatives. I went looking for answers. In a moment of what I considered at the time to be rare idiocy I called upon God, if He even existed, to show me the way.

Much to my surprise, He showed up. What is that like? Well it is like walking through a sedate and cultured park with all these yapping dogs at your heels and you shout out for help and a lion shows up. All the lion has to do is roar and the dogs run for the hills. But there you are, in a sedate and cultured park face to face with a lion. Not, as C.S. Lewis would say, a “tame” lion, but a wild and astonishingly real lion, awesome in a way that makes you both fearful and honoured by his presence.

Just his presence (Beside you? Inside you? It is hard to tell at such a moment) changes you; makes you aware of a reality far more vast that you have ever imagined, and you are changed. In that timeless second you are changed for all time. Those without faith have no idea of the power of that encounter. You could torture me and I could no more renounce the experience of it than I could consciously stop my heart from beating. That incident was over 30 years ago, and yet it is fresh and clear in my memory as the words I am typing at this moment. That encounter has driven me into the most amazing adventure of life and sustained me through a thousand obstacles.

I do not deny that my particular “brand” of faith – Evangelical Protestant Christianity – has its problems. But I would hold that all of its problems come from the fact that imperfect people like me are trying to come to grips with a reality and a truth that far outstrips our capacity to understand or implement it. I sincerely apologize if I or anyone who has held a like precious faith has hurt or insulted you in their ignorance and incomplete understanding.

But despite our faults, the reality and the truth remain. They are out there. God Himself is out there. And the truly astonishing thing is that He actually wants to meet us: stupid, broken, angry, dysfunctional people, who like myself are so full of their own self-importance they cannot see the universe in front of them. God wants to meet you. But don’t go looking for that encounter lightly, because it will change you irrevocably, and you may not want to be changed.

We have both just come back from Cambodia where we helped to conduct a Moral Values workshop in Siem Reap. This workshop, which has been in the planning stages for months, far exceeded our wildest expectations. With a forest in the Apsara Gardens of Angkor Wat as our classroom, the ground for our chairs and desk, and with no amenities nearby, the 36 participants – 24 doctors and 12 senior managers – were confronted with the moral truths of the Bible. This was the second week of training with the leadership of this huge health care organization that has a presence in virtually every village in Cambodia in one form or another. Much preparation, prayer and planning had gone into this week.

A number of times throughout the week the participants confronted the fact that these truths were unlike anything they had encountered before. This moral barrier can best be seen through the language barrier. The understanding of English amongst the participants varied so greatly that we needed to work through a translator to try to ensure the concepts were understood. We found it interesting that the translators never translated the key words but relied on the English word instead. It was explained to us that if they tried to use Khmer for words like love, compassion, caring, kindness and respect it would lose all meaning because there is only one word in Khmer, a very general term that doesn’t begin to describe these various parts of the moral landscape. One of the women said, “We have heard about these things but we have no words to describe them, even to ourselves.”

We were able to establish an agreement for a pilot project in Pourk, a village near Siem Reap were RHAC already has strong volunteers and a youth program. The governor of the district is very open and committed to community transformation and TWR’s children’s, youth and women’s teams are already functioning. TWR Cambodia have also developed a topic list for their broadcasts of the children, youth and women’s programs for the remainder of 2011 which will ensure that these topics are broadcast on the air.

Next week our whole team will be attending a CHE Regional Working Group Meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand along with many others who are doing CHE in SE Asia. It was at this annual meeting just a year ago that I was first able to present the project we have been working on. We stand amazed at what God has done in just one year. This year we need to mobilize some other trainers to assist with this huge project. We hope to begin in May with the training of TWR staff and a group of master trainers from RHAC. One of the principles of CHE is that unless the village owns the project it will not be effective or sustainable so it must begin with the training of these leaders.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to reach into 19 of the 24 provinces of Cambodia through existing, mandated and funded structures through over 20,00 committed people who already have a role in villages, youth organizations, schools and amongst vulnerable groups. It is a model that can also be used in most countries in the region, even where it is necessary to use a creative approach, such as we have employed over the last year in Cambodia.

This is story of the last words of the Buddha, preserved in the Kampee Khom, the ancient Khmer Canon of Buddhist writings. It is excerpted from Steve Cioccolanti’s book From Buddha to Christ. Ciccolanti is a former Thai Buddhist now ministering for Christ in Australia.

When Buddha was travelling in this life an old Brahman prahm (Hindu priest) dressed in white came to ask Buddha, “How can one follow all the commandments and escape from his sins?”

Buddha replied, “Even if you gave alms to the poor, donated gifts to the monks kept all the seen (commandments), the five seen, the eight seen, the 227 seen (all the collected commandments of Buddha), even if you lifted your hands to the sky in worship, still you could not save yourself from your sins. It is not even enough to get close to the gates of heaven.

The old Brahman continued, “If this is so, what must we do to escape and be safe from sin?”

Buddha replied, “The sins of humanity are many and heavy. They are heavier than the sky and thicker than the earth. One man’s sin is thicker than the granite stone that is used to bury his body. If an angel came from heaven and gave this stone a sweep with a cloth once a year, the day that stone disappears will be the day that man’s sin and karma disappear.”

The Brahman pressed on, “If this be the case, what must I do to get over all my sins?”

Buddha told him, “Let all of you continue to do good deeds and seek for another Holy One who will come and save the world. He will rescue you in the near future. (Buddha died in 483 B.C.)

The old Brahman asked, “This Holy One who will come and rescue the world in the near future, what does he look like?”

Buddha replied, “The Holy One who will come will have scars in his hands and his feet like the shape of a gongjak (an ancient weapon with jagged edges). In his side there is a stab wound. His forehead is covered in blemishes. This Holy One will be like a golden vessel, a very large one that will carry you across the cycle of suffering until you reach Heaven Nippan (heaven of no return).

“Do not pursue the old ways, for then you will certainly not escape. Turn from your old ways and you will have a new spirit that shines like a lightening bug come down from Heaven to dwell in your hearts. You will be given victory over all your enemies, whether they come against you from four directions or eight. Nobody will be any means harm you and you will not come back to this world again.”

There are many parts of the Christian Body. Some are hands, some are ears, and some are hearts. There are facilitators and conciliators, comforters and encouragers. It takes all kinds to make a complete Body of Christ here on earth. Each of us has a part in that complete Body, and no part is of greater value than the other. The caring commoner in the congregation is just as vital to the ministry of the Body as the minister who preaches the Word, and no one in the awesome majesty of God can boast that he or she is greater, for all are one in the sight of Christ.

Of all the gifts that God has given to me, that of encourager and teacher, giver and helper, none is more onerous and difficult than that of confronter. I could earnestly wish that He hadn’t. But as I look at my life and the things that Christ has given me a passion for, I am forced to admit that a passion for His Word, and a desire to see its truth glorified in the marketplace of ideas drives many of my conversations.

I had one of those conversations this week. After the first day of teaching, we invited the participants to talk to us, to bring to us their questions and have a conversation with us. A few took us up on the offer, and I and one of them fell to discussing the differences between the Christ of God and the Buddha. “The Buddha had no intention of starting a religion, he began, he merely wanted to tell us how to live so that we would be happy.”

“I find it strange,” I began, “that one who wanted to teach us how to be happy would begin his four noble truths with the statement that all of life is suffering.” “Ah yes, the questioner said,” but Buddha showed us how to escape that suffering and be happy.” “I don’t find that to be true,” I continued. “Buddha said that all suffering came from desire. And yet I have greatly desired that my children grow up to be good and learn to be kind to others so that they will be a blessing to all whom they meet. How can Buddha call such a desire a bad thing?”

“I have asked many monks the same thing,” he replied, “and have received no satisfactory answer. Buddha himself desired to do good by teaching others, how can that be a bad desire? This has often troubled me.” “Tell me another thing,” I said, “Buddha taught that we must be reincarnated and live again in order to pay off the load of debt for our wrong doings, a load of debt he called karma. But Buddha taught that I am always adding to my load of wrong. I kill and eat animals for food, for example. And therefore every time I am reincarnated, I am adding to my load of debt for wrong. How can I escape this karma?”

“I do not know,” he admitted. “Buddha himself offered a solution toward the end of his life,” I told him. “It is contained in his teachings. He said that only a Saviour could pay the debt load of sin. Were you aware of that teaching?” “I am not a practicing Buddhist,” he confessed. “I am only a Buddhist because my parents and grandparents were Buddhists. I no longer know what I believe.”

I said I believed that Buddha was right. That only One can pay for my karma, my debt load of wrong; a Saviour. I believe this Saviour has paid the price for my wrong doings. I believe I am forgiven because He paid for those wrongs. I have been freed from my karma and I feel liberated and have a great joy in my heart. I want to serve this Saviour with all of my strength because He has forgive a debt of wrong I could never repay. Serving Him has filled my life with purpose and joy.

He looked at me in a mixture of doubt and resentment. I had touched a chord, a sore spot in his life, and he knew that I had done so. There was an awkward silence that was quickly filled by others seeking to change the topic to something safer. Later these same people rebuked me for being confrontational, for making another feel uncomfortable. They are right. I did make him feel uncomfortable. But here is my question to all of you who think that confrontation is never good. Would you be happier if this nominal Buddhist was never uncomfortable? Would be you happier if he went to his grave comfortable in his confusion and disbelief? Would his eternal destiny be more comfortable if he died in his sins?

This not an easy ministry. Those who are comforters are themselves comforted. Those who are encouragers are themselves encouraged. Those who confront others with the truth of the gospel of Christ are often rebuked and confronted by others. It grieves my poor heart that this should be so. I have a sensitive spirit, and am easily overcome and discouraged by the unkindness of others. I ask only what others in the body of Christ ask; that you would understand that I seek only His glory and desire to serve only His purpose. That you would be gentler in your rebuke and more understanding of God’s greater purpose in all our lives as we fulfil our part in His Body on earth. Some are called to speak the truth. I always try to do it in love, but I cannot fail to speak, for then I would be unfaithful to how the Lord is leading me.

Oral societies have differents ways of transmitting information than literate ones. In a literate society information is transmitted through the written word. In an oral society like Cambodia, information is transmitted through stories and dramas. If the villages of Cambodia are going to receive and process information, it has to be through a medium they understand.

This is primarily the method that CHE uses to teach its health and moral education. Trans World Radio also uses the spoken, rather than the written word. In partnership they are joined together in getting the message out to the villages of Cambodia how good physical, mental and spiritual health are interconnected. This week the second in a series of CHE workshops are being conducted in the shadow of the ruins of Angkor Wat by these partners working through an indigenous organization called RHAC (the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia). Despite its name, RHAC’s focus is inclusive and represents the only health care provider that most village Cambodias will ever use.

The participants in this week’s workshop of the professional elite of this country. Nearly all of them are doctors – women included – who work sacrificially long hours in smaller urban centres with huge responsibilities and little government support. Yet they have come to Siem Reap to learn how to be even more effective at what they do, and especially learn teaching techniques that the workers they are responsible for can carry into the more remote villages that dot this largely rural country.

It has been my privilege this week to teach among them during the Chinese New Year break. Now I must fly back to Malaysia and my regular job that supports Pam’s portion of this valuable work. The two of us are amazed that this is now happening here in Cambodia. A year ago it was just a prayerful dream that these three organizations could work together to bring this about. A year ago they barely knew of the existence of each other. But through Pam’s vision and effort this dream has now become a reality. We praise God for what He has done through us and commit to His care the outcome in furthering His kingdom among the ruins of this ancient country.

The historical markers couldn’t be more symbolic. Here we were in the shadow of Angkor Wat conducting lessons in moral values that were largely derived from Christian theology to the descendants of that ancient Buddhist Empire. The park surrounding Angkor Wat was deliberately chosen, not by us, but by the recipients of our training who wished to break away from the barren and demoralising teaching of the past to give their communities new hope for the future.

And hope was what this training was all about. Hope that the communities of Cambodia would be able to meet not only the health challenges that they face, but the social and psychological and more importantly the spiritual changes that lie ahead. Those who work on the front lines of community work know that this holistic approach to community development is needed. We know as Christians that only cultural transformation can bring this about. And this has to happen at the personal level first.

Today’s lesson’s focused on developing this personal relationship with our ‘students’, most of whom are doctors, running clinics in various parts of the country. They have given up a week in their very busy schedules, not to have a vacation in the countryside, or at the beach, but to spend it listening to us teach them things that they hope will be useful as they try to meet the health needs of Cambodia. We have been encouraged by their response to what we have said and are praying that these series of lessons are going to be mulitplied in the near future.

Next Page »