Friday, July 15, 2011

Rock Bottom

Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. - J.K. Rowling

I just ran into this quote today on FB and it just jumped off the page and into my face. Although I can’t confirm that it actually comes from J.K. Rowling, it immediately resonated with me, causing me to pause and do some deep musing. Impulsively, I wanted to comment immediately to the person who posted it on FB because it evoked such emotion in me but I hesitated because I didn’t know if I disagreed or agreed with it. Granted the quote is more of statement on Rowling’s own experience and perspective, than anything else, but I was fascinated in just how much meaning this quote had packed away in it for me, but….. at the same time I feared that those who don’t think a “bottom” experience or something similar will ever happen to them just might skim over the great insight of this extremely short but poignant quote. In terms of my own recent experience, this quote is quite relevant and loaded as well, because it talks about hitting bottom and rebuilding from that bottom. I do thank God that my “rock bottom” isn’t as deep as many have experienced, but I am not too far off, having hit the biggest bottom of my entire life: a divorce thereby losing a wife, a household, social standing in the Christian Community, and a vocation (hopefully temporarily). I am very grateful to God that he cared enough to make sure I got the point of what he was trying to teach me, which was about foundations.

The quote begs the question, what is your foundation built upon? Both Bangkok and Phnom Penh are built on swamps. Bangkok is sinking slowly but Phnom Penh seems to have been given a reprieve, probably because it is smaller and they cannot build as many huge sky scrapers. My family used to stay at the Christian Guesthouse in BKK near the Sirkhumvit line in the mid-nineties and during each visit we would notice the markings on the foundation signifying how much the guesthouse sank that year as construction on nearby skyscrapers jarred the earth, causing surrounding buildings to sink. Many of the buildings in BKK have solid foundations but they are sinking and heading toward some sort of bottom. And for many of us, all sorts of circumstances, both within and outside of our control, are constantly jarring our foundations so our foundations are always in some form of being twisting, turned, maligned, and bent out of shape as they sink under the stress of life. Can our foundation survive all the onslaughts?

It has been my observation that most of us who profess the name Jesus think that the day we ‘accepted’ Christ was the day that we instantly had a new foundation poured for our lives. I was once a surveyor and saw firsthand that no foundation for any structure was built in a day. The design and execution took consideration, effort and time. Even before houses were approved to built on a plot of land, the ground had to be tested for percolation, and proper soil structure. But with human lives, our foundations are already well established when we commit ourselves to following Jesus. Not many of us have the option to plan out our foundations from scratch like engineers. Our social soil has already been prepared. And God being God does not remove our existing foundation all at once like pulling the bottom card from a house of cards—causing it all to come down in one big crash. So what we tend to do is enter a slow process of trying to replace the bad parts of a foundation with good parts. I have met people who have bought old log cabins that were built upon four rotten wood pilings holding up the structure on each of the four corners of the cabin. They had to carefully replace each rotting wood piling at a time with concrete pilings so the house did not collapse. Then, they naturally go on to replace the old dry-rotted floor joists and planks, etc, until the house is stable and safe. Metaphorically speaking, when we become Christians, we tend to do the same thing with our world view. What we often forget is that any time during the renovation of our foundation (worldview, spiritual life, etc), fire, wind, rain, tornados, earthquakes and swampy soil can assault that foundation. There is no guarantee anyone will be spared. “In this world you will have tribulation, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

It is perhaps too difficult to ask those of you who have had your foundations crash on “rock bottom” to see this as not always such a bad thing. If and when it happens, there will be little left intact of your old foundation, the one that was patched together to the best of your ability with pieces of scripture, cultural values, and the wisdom of the world. Jesus, speaking to Jews in a Jewish culture, says in the Gospels that the wise man builds his house on solid rock—the rock of Jesus himself and his words. But today as we endeavor to do that, our own thinking, and the teaching and the sermons we hear are so filtered by cultural values that we have little idea what is actually scriptural verses what is cultural. Few of us have been equipped to examine our own values so that we can tell the difference between biblical values and cultural values. We just assume we know when we really don’t. So we set out to obey Jesus, thinking we are building a foundation on solid rock when in fact we are building on the sifting sand of cultural values. But being on rock bottom gives us a unique perspective and position. We can clearly see what has worked and what hasn’t and we can choose the right materials (values, beliefs, perspectives) to rebuild.

Some of us will be afforded the opportunity to sift through the rubble and wreckage and be able to separate those rare pieces of steel and granite (our relationship with Christ, Biblical values, and what transformation that has occurred because of it) that survived the crash, from the flotsam and jetsam that did not. From the crash we can see what survives and why, and we can use that to rebuild from the bedrock of “rock bottom.” For many of us, our foundations are in various stages of neglect, disrepair, or renovation. As time goes on, and life drives us along, we somehow think our foundation needs no ongoing examination or critique, and we think that if we change the oil or add a quart when needed, things will take care of themselves. In my case, the walls and floors of my house started to creek and sag, and show signs of becoming warped because the foundation had serious stress cracks. Instead of examining the foundation and addressing the unseen causes, I tried to throw a new coat of paint on the walls, and put new linoleum, tiles or rug on the floors and address the symptoms. I wasted a lot time on superfluous home repair while the foundation was in the process of sinking and crumbling. When it finally came down, it crashed close enough to “rock bottom” to allow me to begin to build upon the same very same bedrock of “the” rock bottom.

Although I have never read Harry Potter, I love the quote because when I muse upon it, I end up in a place where I realize that hitting the bottom as hard as I did was a gift. I still feel the intense emotional pain of rejection, loneliness, living in isolation, tragic loss, and standing naked in the darkness of uncertainty, but as I stand in the midst of the wreckage called my life, I now know that with God’s help I have a chance to actually begin to rebuild from scratch, something all most none of us are afforded at the time of conversion. In a way, although the pain is still fresh and the road is difficult, I don’t have to limp along anymore in this life relating to people and making life decisions based on a patch work of values and beliefs that are an indecipherable blend of cultural and biblical values. You may spot me limping along for sure, but only because the wounds from my crash are still tender.


Monday, March 14, 2011

I was talking to one of Abraham’s converts, a young man who was addicted to drugs and in a violent gang. He now helps Abraham lead the church service on Andong Village church. I called him the “big gangster” in Khmer. We were talking and he asked me if I ever got into any knife fights when I was a teen. I told him, ‘no,’ just a few fist fights, and those I could count on one hand. I was trying to think of the worst thing I had done when I was a teen but couldn’t come up with anything worthy of a knife fight. I do remember hiding in the closet of a friend’s math class in 10th grade and walking out half way through the class, saying “Hi, Mr. Mac,” to the teacher and disappearing out the door. And there was the time I tried to steal an empty keg of beer from a Greek restaurant when a barrel-chested, curly headed Greek mad man chased with me with a cleaver as I jumped through the back window of a friend’s station wagon as we sped away. And there was the time the police arrived at a party and while they were in the back yard, I got into their squad car and turned on all the lights and sirens and sped away in my ’66 Volkswagen Beetle. Or, there was the time my boss got his deer in Vermont and brought it back and gutted it at his gas station in Greenwich. I noticed the legs of the deer in the dumpster so I got them out and put them in the trunk of VW. Later that week (it was cold) I just happened to see my friend’s car parked in back of a restaurant near a pizza joint so I got a pizza box, put the legs in it, and put it on the front seat of his car. His girlfriend hit the ceiling when she realized it was not extra pizza that was in the pizza box. I also used to roll my neighbor’s car (Mr. Pemburn) down the street and park it in another neighbor’s driveway. And there were times when we put M-80’s (quarter sticks of dynamite) on people’s front stoops using a cigarette as a delayed fuse so when it would blow, we’d be a good half mile away. One of my more devious tricks was to sit in the library, going through all the magazines, filling out the “bill me later” ads and sending magazines of questionable morality to various school mates, sign them up for military service, and enroll them in refrigerator repair courses, etc. One day I heard my father, who worked at the post-office, tell my mother that Mrs. Starr, mother of one of my school mates was in the P.O. ranting and raving to the boss about her son having been subscribed to Playboy Magazine at age 15. I did get suspended in my senior for staging a fake fight with a friend. It looked so real that all those watching us in the quad jumped out of classroom windows to come and watch the fight. And one time camp at Scout summer camp I took bug spray and sprayed a spot over our Senior Patrol Leaders head on his tent. Doing so takes the water proofing out the canvas. That night it poured and he got soaked. He chased me half way around the camp and caught me, only to give me a stern reaming. So as I look back, I was more of a merry prankster than one who was into gang violence. I guess the only really violent thing I did was make my brother stand on a #10 can with an M-80 under it which totally flattened the can and blew Steve a few feet in the air. He noted that he had a nagging headache for the next few days. Like the former gangster at Andong Village, I have repented, and no longer engage in any prankster like activity. I don’t even know how to pull pranks anymore. Maybe I should look for the old manual and dust it off a bit, and try to sharpen up my old skills.

I’m about three hours out of Phnom Penh heading for a 5 hour lay-over in Tapei. I have been trying to reflect on this recent month long trip to Cambodia but it all just seems like one big Southeast Asian blur. I know our first group of teens went up-country to Kompong Thom (in the center of Cambodia) to engage with the Khmer students from the outer limits of Kompong Thom who have come to the provincial city to attend high school and stay in the dorms built by one of our more eccentric partners in ministry. From these junior high teens I learned all I needed to know about who Justin Biebher was and he was about. I was tempted to buy his pirated CDs at the Russian market but did not cave in to the temptation. I doubt Neil would approve. Neil Young that is. I also tried to keep them away from trying to find out which soup the Khmer put marijuana in as seasoning and was largely successful. These teens then went back and forth between KEY (the ministry for emerging youth leaders I helped start in 1995) and the Andong squatter village. At the KEY Drop in Center they taught English and music to the drop ins. KEY staff used to call it the “dropping center” in their broken English but I told them it was not a center for scatological studies. In Andong, they led games with the elementary age squatter children in Abraham’s school. Last year, a teen girl from Wesminster Chapel, Jacqueline, organized her youth group to raise 5K for Andong to build houses and put in a drainage system. This year they will do another fund raiser.

During my time in Cambodia, one of my former students was killed by a drunk driver. I am very close to the family and they were devastated. He was only 28. I do hazily remember speaking in chapel at Hagar, Int’l (an organization that reaches out to widows and children). The Westminster Chapel group headed back very encouraged about their trip while the First Pres Bellevue and Calvin group arrived. The Pastors of this group went to the coast to help with the training of the pastors (TAP Project) and I hung out with the youth pastors and young adult group who went back and forth between KEY and Andong doing some of the same things the Westminster teens did (games, sports arts ‘n crafts), except go out to check out the night clubs and karaoke parlors. Although the teens did ask permission to do that, it was unanimously denied by the non-consenting adults on the trip.

While the pastors were away, we went to visit women prisoners in Pray Saw Prison on International Women’s Rights day with the Human Rights Organization, LICADHO. Were handed out bread and other sundries to the women and were encouraged to engage with them. I was talking to a handful of them and told them I was recently divorced and one woman said to me, “If I wanted to marry, I would marry someone who wasn’t old and someone who was handsome.” Ouch!!!! The truth hurts. I guess I’m old and in the way now, like an old worn tire with the belts showing through.

The next day we went to visit and old friend Wayne who runs an orphanage for children who are HIV+ on the land of a Buddhist Pagoda. Since the advent of the anti-viral drugs, death is longer a regular part of their lives at the Pagoda, so Wayne is switching gears a bit. It was a good visit and his stories of life on the pagoda for many years were moving and challenging.

Various members of the team went to visit former Diamond Program students who were pastoring churches, running orphanages, working for Human Rights organization, working in prisons, running sports ministries, and working with land evictees, etc. They also met up with folks from Human Rights organizations, LICADHO and International Justice Mission. I covered a lot of ground while I was here but wished I could’ve spent a bit more time with Seila, the director of KEY (Kingdom Equipped Youth). I did get to sneak out and see my old pal, Dave Rebok for noodle soup quite a bit and we’d always get carried away recounting our experiences while serving in the Nam back in ’67 up in Ia Drang Valley.

Got some dental work done and my stomach fixed while I was here as well, and did indeed enjoy the sunshine and the Khmer food. Somehow I just barely managed to keep up with my studies and I will arrive home just in time to write a 12 page paper and do a final exam. Then I am gloriously done with my Masters Degree in Global Leadership (although I will greatly miss it!!!)

Today, on our last day, I translated at the worship service at Pastor Abraham’s church for those in our group who were giving testimonies or preaching. There is something about preachers where they just can’t stop themselves from going on and on. I guess that is the nature of the beast. I was tempted to make a few twists of my own in the story line to correct what I didn’t agree with but ended up behaving myself. I’m not yet fully sold on all Presbyterian doctrine.

I know this newsletter is more like a report, with little or no reflection. I guess the only reflections I can muster up at this time is that this trip was an experience where I had to balance the tension of being in a place I love and with the people I love, but all the while being reminded of all the good memories I had with Debbi and kids when we were here. It was a powerful sadness that existed uncomfortably alongside the joy of being back in the saddle again.

Brian, reporting live from Phnom Penh….

The Church-Where Heroes Need Protection

Today is a rather sad day as one of my former staff, Mr. Phearun, 28 years old, was hit and killed by a drunk driver while driving his motorcycle. The drunk who hit him spent the night in the jail but will probably be released soon or is released already because the family has money. I knew Phearun since 1998, and had hired his older sister to work for the EFC KEY. He was a young man full of energy and service for the Lord. He will be missed by man.

This morning we had a touching experience as group of Seattlites listened to former Pastor Amos speak about his call to Human Rights and social justice work. I also knew Amos from the time he was a very young boy in 1990. His father was a church leader during the time of the underground church during the late 70’s and the 80’s up until freedom of Religion 1990. Amos grew up in the Olympic Church which was very active during 70’s before Pol Pot took over. Amos was a student of mine in the Diamond Program Level 2 in 2008, and really felt the call of God on his life to help communities in conflict from one of our DP blocks taught by Indian Raju Bagwat on Social Justice and Community Organizing. At the time Amos studied with us, he and his fiancĂ© were working at FEBC radio station. One of our themes in DP was; “Don’t read the Bible in one hand unless you are reading a newspaper in the other.” As Moses continued to broadcast about the love God on the radio, he began to become acutely aware of all the land evictions happening in Phnom Penh and all over the country. He began to wonder what good it was to broadcast the love of God and go to church and sing lovely praise songs while doing nothing to relieve the suffering of those being evicted, cheated by the government and beaten violently by the police. His Christian peers and pastors kept telling him that getting involved in politics is not the job of the church but Amos did not see it as political. He could not see how any Christians, western or Cambodian could separate love from justice. The love Christ demands a sacrificial, risking love that ends up delivering people from bondage and darkness. Amos got tired of offering Christian platitudes over the air and went to work for a human rights organization. He has slept on eviction sites, advocated for evictees, provided them with legal counsel and disseminates information about the abuses of the government on the poor. Amos is a prophet and is a target of the government and a thorn in the side of the church as he continually reminds them of the hollow their preaching and worship is while they keep their hands clean of risks and helping the poor. Amos is a prophet, just like the Biblical prophet Moses, and is highly respected by the non-Christian Human Rights community as a Christian of love and action. He is criticized by many Cambodian churches as he confronts them for preferring the statusquo of worship, Bible study and basking in God’s blessings. Jesus, he says, has called us to yoke up with his suffering and to lay down our lives for the sake of our marginalized brothers. Amos is passionate about his calling, and pledges to fulfill his role as a prophet to call the church to repentance. He is willing die for his role as a prophet and for human rights activist. When I posted he quote; “To get to heaven, one needs a reference letter from the poor,” he was one of the only ones to really appreciate this quote. Other commentators began to split doctrinal hairs and missed the whole point entirely.

I could really relate to Amos because we really are kindred spirits. I am a bit jealous because I believe his prophetic voice is being heard while mine falls on deaf ears. Maybe I am just meant to be a prophet and voice for the poor to myself?????

Anyway, Amos was a great inspiration and challenge to our group of white, wealthy, and overly educated Christians from the Seattle. Not one the 14 of use were unmoved. Now the real test will be to put what we all felt was a shove from the Holy Spirit into practice. 45 Million Americans have no insurance, more that that are unemployed, 13 million children live in families under the poverty level, education for minorities and those is urban low rent areas is atrocious, the media pumps sexual gratification into all its marketing strategies, corporate managers get richer while blue collar jobs are made obsolete and are outsourced to developing countries. The government gives large tax cuts to the richest 5% of Americans whiling cutting programs for the poor, and our foreign policy and military are used to create ever expanding markets for global capitalism and the environmental degradation of developing countries that follows. We American and Global Christians have our work cut out for us but are we willing to be prophetic, challenging and willing to offer creative strategic initiatives, or will we be content to just be nice church people. The church is not only called to be the conscience of the government, but to model a better way to society. Let’s do our job.

The Church-Where Heroes Need Protection

We are ones we have been waiting for…

Many of us today are asking, "where are the MLKs, the Mandelas. . . where are the Lincolns and Wilberforces?"

As we look at the world, we feel overwhelmed and powerless to change the atrocities and injustices that occur on a daily basis.

We wait impatiently for God to raise up prophets to confront the host empires and, because we find none, and things stay the same, we turn cynical.

Cynicism, it seems, is a method by which we criticize these atrocities from afar, without taking any action. We feel somewhat vindicated by the "good" we have done in the world by merely acknowledging "there is a problem", only to retreat to our affluent middle class worlds. Even after retreating, however, we are never fully impacted by the human rights violations that occur in other countries. Our cynicism manifests itself in apathy--we want to see change, but have lost hope in our ability to make those changes.

We have a time line for solving the world's problems and God is taking way too long. Science and the innate goodness of humans have failed to deliver evil from the systems that enslave us.

We seek a prophet. I know a man.

I know a man who has not yet fell victim to cynicism. He has has not yet retreated into a spiritual bubble, waiting for Jesus to come and judge all those bad people out there and their corrupt systems.

This man is Uon Selia.

Seila has built a movement of spiritual and social change among thousands of youth in Cambodia. He is a person of faith and conscience, taking his his commissioning as a prophet seriously, but accompanied by the virtue of humility. Seila believes that the world can be changed, especially through the young people of this generation--full of faith and hope. These young leaders, have the genuine belief that they can no longer wait--they are the only avenue for change.

He has created incarnational disciples among young Cambodians who have become human rights activists, orphanage directors, community organizers, and pastors working in slums and in prisons. Seila dares to dream big, seeing the youth become leaders in all aspects of society, rectifying the evils that have plagued Cambodia for decades.

While many have chosen to use the ministry as a stepping stone to fame, power and wealth, he has not succumbed to any form of nepotism, honor seeking, and the desire to accumulate material wealth that his peers have. He is planting potent seeds that are germinating in the social soil of Cambodia, and he’s weaving Kingdom strands into the social fabric of the culture.

Prophets are among the first insiders to be marginalized by the church. They challenge the status quo when most pastors want to be left alone to their preaching and teaching, not getting their hands dirty in muck and mire of social injustices. Like most prophets, Seila won’t come through his prophetic ministry unscathed. Bill Bright said, “I’m a Great Commission man myself, and the Great Commission tells us to teach to others about all things Jesus teaches us, and he taught us that a big part of the gospel is caring for the poor.” Seila is a Great Commission man. Seila is this nation's prophet.

Today Seila is in a tough spiritual battle. I invite you to pray for him in terms of wisdom and strength in the coming days. Pray that he will be as wise a serpent and gentle as a dove.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Life in the Living Fields

Cambodian Update-

Today I am helping Seila in DP 2 (Diamond Project 2). The lesson is about Isolation and why it happens to us, and how we can wait, persevere and work through it. Seila asked me to give my testimony concerning my isolation just before, during and after my divorce and what God taught me. I shared with 20 DP students what I have shared with no one else, mainly because nobody really ever asked. The DP students asked a lot of very good questions. It is very encouraging to see DP classes going strong in KCham, PP, and K.Thom. They are having some problems with K.Chhnang but these problems can be ameliorated. The drop in center is packed from 3:30 pm to 7:30 pm at night. Even monks come to learn computer and English. The drop in center is right next to the CMA’s monolithic flagship church and remains empty most of the time, except on Sundays for church services.

Yesterday I went to look at some land in Kompong Speau province that would make a perfect camp ground that could be used year round. It is owned by a Korean man who wants to make use of this land. He does not want to sell the land, but let us use it as long as we want it. Other than being ripped to shreds by thorns, wilting under the sweltering heat, and stung by nasty red ants, it was an interesting tour through bush. It reminded much of my tour of duty in the Nam back in ’68.
The Westminster Chapel gang has gone back to the land of free and corporate greed and left me holding the bag in Cambodia. I don’t mind that. I’ve already gone to the dentist to repair two fillings for the cost of $100. Next I will find my Russian doctor to diagnose my stomach problems which I have had since before Thanksgiving.
Tomorrow I will go out to an Island on the Mekong to attend a church service in the church of my friend Mr. Ey Vonn. He really has only one eye so it seems God played a trick on him by giving him the birth name of Ey Vonn. If pronounced the American way, it is Vonn Ey (one eye).

The church is doing better in the Kingdom. His Excellency Heng Cheng, General Secretary of the EFC is helping to bring unity to the various generations in the Khmer Church. Raju Sbagwat is helping bring reconciliation those Christian leaders who have held grudges against each other in the past and is having a lot of success. The EFC KEY is still doing great work training up emerging leaders. Seila is becoming a highly desired teacher and speaker on worldview and how to engage this post-modern generation. He is also a writer on indigenous theology, a poet, musician and owner of former dog, sniper. The latter is his best credential.
I have been asked to speak at Hagar this Monday to the expat and Khmer staff. This will be a first. I am still wondering what to say but I suppose I will come up with something. I am here waiting for a group from First Presbyterian and Calvin to come in with their big guns (105 mm Howitzers). I’m just a little gun with a small pop (an air rifle with a cork in the barrel.

Since I owe the IRS $7300, I might skip the country and stay in Cambodia. I will keep you posted while I am in hiding in Cambodia. As money gets short, I may have to live on duck embryos and crickets.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Amazing Stories from Kompong Thom

Just a short update from the bowels of Cambodia… I have been in my glory eating Cambodia food which I have missed so much. Wow, it is so good. The soup seasoned with Ganja is especially tasty. I’ve finally come home. The language is back, jack. I’m the man again.

Along with Pastor Ralph and a few young adults, I am leading a group of Junior High School students from Westminster Chapel in Bellevue and here we are, way up country, ministering to students in dorms who come from far away in the provinces. We had a great time playing games and doing tie dye t-shirt with them. We also participated in a Diamond Program class here in Kompong Thom (I helped launch this program). After church today we head back to PP where will minister with the EFC KEY and Andong Village.

I can’t say how impressed I am with some of these junior high school kids. Only 15 or 16, these teenagers are grappling with some difficult issues and concepts, ones that we adults suppress all our lives in order not to the abuse and suffering of the impoverished in this world. We work and hoard, and pile up material processions so high we cannot see a hurting world around us. In the last few days, after seeing the Diamond Program students and spending time with the teens of group, I feel hopeful. If we aren’t willing to get it, a remnant of the church will somehow. These teens are at a point where they can choose not become hoarders, consumers and good capitalists who market to know no end. They are not yet trapped in the system.
Last night Pastor Ralph led a debriefing in our room and we listened to what impressed the teens. One teen was impressed how the Diamond Project students (19 of them) were so serious about learning how to become good Christian leaders. No one had to be enticed to come and learn with promises of entertainment- they actually paid to enroll. Another teen girl who had to use the outhouse was sort of shocked that the sink was an open concrete/ tile box with murky water in it. It hit her just how our western reality is really a social construct which doesn’t reflect or include the reality of the rest of the world. Yet another teen saw how Cambodian young people really knew how to have fun and no one stood around trying to be cool. All the Cambodian dorm students participated in the games and activities, no one was excluded. One of our teens commented how awesome the Diamond Program was as they listed to DP students talk about time they spent with their mentors and all the creative field work they were doing. She sort of wished they had such a program back home. Most of them realized that by agreeing to go on this trip, they would be faced with a choice; either to build a life-long ethical response to the poor or to begin building life-long defense mechanisms enabling them to live in denial of a true Christian ethical response while they purse self-actualization, and the building of economic safety nets, maybe even in ways that oppress the poor. I have great hope for the majority of this group. I am glad too, that there will be some adults who can follow up with these young people and help them to continue to process all that emerges from the very unique situation God has placed them in. Pray for them.

Stories from Kompong Thom

Thamor Kohl District Church in Kompong Thom hosted our group today. Chumno, an EFC KEY staff of Kompong Thom translated the announcements. "Please pray that we can find the funding to rebuild our chicken. Our chicken burned down a few months ago." I was aware their kitchen burned down, but no one told me about the chicken burning down. Shouldn't be too hard to raise some funding to buy a new chicken but why aren't they worrying about the kitchen? Doesn't make much sense.

The Westminster teens taught the dorm students in Kompong Thom how to tie-dye t-shirts. It was interesting. I jokingly said to a Cambodian student, when you're finished with that, why don't you tie dye that white dog over there? A few minutes later the Westminster young people were calling me to stop the Cambodian boys from tie-dying the dog. "Brian, why didn't you stop them?" I said, "Well, their pastor was right there, I didn't want to over-ride his authority." Now Thamor Kohl has a white dog with a green racing stripe and few patches of blue. They blame me. What's up with that? By the way, they all wore their tie dyed shirts to church the next day and they looked great! I saw the white dog slinking about the church grounds and he fit right in.

The other night, Nick, one the adult leaders took the “Fertilized Duck Egg Challenge.” This consists of eating a fertilized duck egg which has developed almost into a baby duck in the shell. Has soft bones, a beak, wings, feathers, etc, inside the shell. You open the top of the egg, put a mixture of pepper and lime juice, and then eat the embryo out of the shell with a little spoon. Nick popped a big piece into his month and set there contemplating swallowing it. Pretty soon he began to look a little pale and spewed the contents of his mouth onto his plate. This just delighted those knuckled headed junior high students who were laughing themselves silly we attracted quite a crowd-with them being the noisy Americans they are.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Its a Funny Kind of a Story

Here I am on a looooong flight from Seattle to Taiwan…then on to Cambodia. I’ve been mulling over some thoughts and really couldn’t pull them together into something coherent….not until I gave up and watched a movie. The movie said what I was thinking in many ways and you ought to get out and go see it. It is, A Funny Kind of Story. The story is about a 16 year old boy, who is facing a lot of pressures that young people and all people face, realities of a bad local and global economy, two wars, global warming, pressure to excel at his private school, extra pressure from his dad to get into a summer program for gifted teens with business acumen, and the fact that all of his affluent peers have academics come easy to them, as well as sports, drama, and music, etc. Craig actually has to work extremely hard at all these things to keep up. Craig has been on anti-depressants and goes off them. He finds himself checking into a sanitarium on his block because he feels suicidal, and after getting a tour and seeing his new roommates, he begs the psychiatrist to let him out- he made a mistake and wants to go home. The head shrink takes his admission of feeling suicidal seriously, and tells him he has to stay for a week. Craig is petrified among these people; schizophrenics, an orthodox Jew who burned out on an acid overdosed, an Egyptian man who can’t get of bed, an middle aged African-American woman who flipped out when the Patriot Act was passed, his closest new friend Bobby, a mid-thirties guy who just can’t make it on the outside and a beautiful teenage girl, Noelle. He wants out, he tells the head shrink, because he isn’t like them. Ring any bells?

And, I fear this is what many of us church goers feel when we look outside the four walls of the church. We are okay because we are not like ‘them’ and that attitude is our death sentence. The church is busy dying instead of being born. We need to ask ourselves as individuals, “ are we busy dying or being born?” Christians today have more of a need to be converted than many other groups we pity or point our fingers at, groups that are the target of our ministries.

After a few days in the psych ward Craig’s whole perspective about life is changed as he learns from patients he lives with. He discovers how to express himself in art which relieves him of the great burden of stress he carries. He also learns wisdom from his fellow patients and begins to understand that although they may be screwed up every which way, each one imparts wisdom for living to him. By the end of the week, Craig drops his sense of entitlement and decides to live the life of a normal teen rather than become a victim of the overachiever mindset his dad is imposing on him. Craig plans to do art, go biking, skating, spend time with Noelle who met on the ward, and just live life. He is excited about the prospect of being normal and simplifying.

I see so many Christian parents put academics as a priority over discipleship with their children. They want to make sure their children will enjoy the affluent, safe and ‘risk free’ life which is not what Jesus calls to at all. Jesus calls us to yoke up with his suffering, self-sacrifice, self-denial, simplicity, equality and solidarity with the poor. Damn, what a disservice. How can we as parents discover our error and change our tact before we create bigger Pharisees of children than we have of ourselves? We can only be converted to the truth by becoming the poor, the marginalized, the addicted, the ostracized, and the mentally ill, or experience their reality. We need to build our theology and perspective of life not from our perch in the affluent burbs, but from the margins of society, which is the context and perspective from which Jesus spoke.

By the end of the week Craig is serving the patients and doing things for them that enrich their lives. He decides that volunteering on the ward will be part of his new life. He was born again, and he became a new person because he became one the dregs of society, one of the forgotten, and the experience has changed his life, and he has a new course that will freak out his parents. He was spared from a sentence of being a teenage overachiever in a pragmatic world where all activities were done to put on a college resume in order to get into the best college, to get the best job that makes the most money. Perhaps he would become a great psychiatrist and help those who taught him how to live.

Probably by this time, half of you stopped reading and the other half of you are muttering charges of heresy and ‘let’s burn him at the stake.’ That’s ok, though. I’m just writing from my own experience- no full time job, lost my spouse and former ministry, and other that, I am doing great. The last 3 years of life has been one of conversion by the marginalized and to the marginalized. I owe them my life.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Hooch Squad

While on home leave this summer I stayed up late a few nights just writing about various life experiences. Sometimes I forward these articles on to magazines that might be interested. Back in December of ’97, one of my articles appeared in Adirondac Magazine. This most recent December (2000), The Adirondack Explorer published one of the articles I wrote this summer about my life and times at Paul Smith’s College which is in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. I studied forestry at Paul Smith’s in the late seventies -and loved it.

When The Adirondack Explorer received my article, they requested that I might dig up some photos of my early days at Smitty’s. I found a few and sent them on. Meanwhile, the folks at the ‘Explorer’ had gone to Paul Smith’s and collected a few photos of their own. When my folks sent me the magazine, I was surprised to see one particular photo I had never seen before. It had four students at a ‘Woodsmen’s Meet’, standing against a truck with a sign that said, “Hooch Squad”. I knew two of the students quite well. One was my roommate (center with a beard) for the summer of ‘78 and the other, the one farthest to the left, was the guy whose testimony urged me seriously to consider becoming a follower of Jesus back in early ’79. His name was Mark Coffin.

When I first arrived at PSC, Mark Coffin had a long thick beard and was captain of the Woodsman team. He kind of reminded me of Aqualung but larger and more buffed. He was from somewhere around Boston and grew up as an adopted child. Mark was a serious drinker and a brawler, a pretty rough character all around. I managed to avoid him, not really knowing what he was all about. At the time, I was thinking, ‘safety first’ is the best policy.

As I went into my second year as a forestry student (PSC was only a two-year college at the time) Mark graduated and went to work with a local logging outfit. Meanwhile, through a real revival type situation on the Paul Smith’s campus, some of Mark’s friends had decided to become followers of Jesus. They shared that good news with Mark who didn’t think that it was such great news at the time. For Mark, it meant having a few less drinking buddies.

One a late winter afternoon, somewhere not too far from the Saranac Lake area, Mark was helping the skidder operator slap some chokers around the butts of some remaining felled trees that had been limbed out and ready to go. This was the last hitch of logs for the day to be dragged out to the landing. They were pretty far back in off the main road. It was getting quite cold and their warm breath clouded in the chilly late afternoon air. It was the weekend so everyone wanted to get home early. Mark told the skidder operator, “go ahead and take this hitch out and I’ll walk back. I want to take care of this one hanger.” Earlier while Mark was felling a tree, it’s crown got hung up in another tree, never hitting the ground. He wanted to make sure it was on ground before leaving the area as hunters or hikers might chance by only to have the tree come down on top of them. Mark watched the diesel skidder roar to life, belch out plumes of dense black smoke and disappear around the bend with a thousand feet of timber dragging behind it. Mark fired up his Stihl 0.51. He began to cut a small section out of the butt of tree hoping it would cause the crown to roll off the other tree and come down. The tree did twist, and quite fast but in the wrong direction so that it came down right on Mark’s leg, breaking his femur and pinning him to the ground. He lay there trapped to the ground in a bed of hard packed snow while a flurry of swirling snowflakes landed on his face intermittently. From the angle where he lay, all he could see was the tops of hardwoods, swaying in the Adirondack’s bone chilling winter breeze. In excruciating pain, the only thing other thing his senses were picking up was the sound of the skidder, now about half way out to the log landing. He knew he was dead. He would die within a half-hour from shock or from hypothermia. Both weren’t the worst ways to die, and what better place than in an Adirondack forest, but on the other hand, he was only twenty-one and he wanted to live. For some reason he thought of all his friends and those he would miss the most. He thought of his Christian friends whom he had alienated. At this point, he was ready to deal with the God; the God of whom his friends had said was good news. He talked to God in the pain, in the cold quiet grayness of the waning day and in the isolation. He told God, “If YOU, like my friends say, are great enough to deliver me from death and save me, I will follow your son Jesus for the rest of my life.” How this would work out, he knew not. All of a sudden Mark noticed that there was complete silence in deepening grayness. The sun had set and dark was rapidly encroaching on what traces of light that were left. The dark made the silence deafening but it seemed to carry a message with it. In his delirium, he was trying to think. What is it about this quietness? Then he knew immediately. The skidder had reached the log landing, was parked and shut off. The only thing that occurred to Mark was to shout for help, which was ridiculous because the landing was almost a mile away – but he did anyway. He shouted and shouted until he became hoarse and could shout no more. He lay back to let shock and exposure do its work. What else could he do?

The next thing he knew, the familiar sound of a diesel engine was idling in the background of his senses. It was dark now and his leg was hurting to the point where he’d rather slip back into unconsciousness. Someone had a peavey and was lifting the tree off his leg, shouting at him to try and move. He vaguely recalls the ride back on the skidder which was probably a good thing - a mile over logging trails (not logging roads) in the dark with a broken femur could not be that comfortable.

I heard about the accident and that Mark was in the hospital. Then I saw him hobbling around campus with crutches, after that a cane. The next time I saw him, he was knocking on my door at Gabriel’s campus in late December of 1978. The cane was gone but there was a new addition. There was a large Bible under his arm. For Mark Coffin, this was something new! Mark was making the rounds. He went to every single dorm room on Paul Smith’s College Campus and Gabriel’s Campus (where we second foresters were sent in exile). He even looked up students living off campus. He wanted to tell everyone that Jesus Christ, is indeed good news. It was because of his testimony and his love for God that made me consider my own situation. Not long after that, I committed my life to following Christ as well. How many others were influenced by his life, I am unsure but I would not be surprised if it were more than I thought.

The first I heard from Mark after he left the St. Regis area was in 1984 while I was studying at Word of Life in Schroon Lake. He was working with Youth for Christ in San Jose. I tried to look him up again but lost track of him. I did reach him from Cambodia by email in ’96. I forget how I got hold of his email address. He had left Youth for Christ and was a Youth Minister in a large church Evangelical Free Church in San Jose, CA. I have once again lost track of him for a few years but found out that he is in Montana pastoring a church and hates email.

Brian M. Maher