I’m walking home from church in September with Boom, a Bible College student. Car and motorcycle exhaust stings my nose and lungs. Boom tells me she has to say something so I bend closer to hear her above the roar of traffic. It’s dark and I’m trying not to trip over broken pieces of sidewalk
She asks if I remember a text message I sent to her before leaving for America last year. I shake my head and yell back that I don’t remember.
She says, “For five years I came to church and Bible School to sleep. Then you sent me a text message last year. You said, “God will be faithful to transform your life.”
Boom says that word, “transform,” was the beginning of something in her life. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. She wanted to know what it meant. She says, “I knew I couldn’t transform myself. I thought who could do this?” Then she thought, “Only God. Only God could do this.”
“You don’t remember?” she asks again.
I have a hazy memory of sitting in a taxi on the way to the airport and sending Boom a text message using the word transform and I think, wow, how could a word I can barely remember be so powerful?
Boom and her sister, Tuktik, come from a small village in Udanthani province in the Northeast of Thailand where their parents, rice and sugar cane farmers, still live in a small one room house. They cook over a clay stove outside. Chickens roam freely around the yard.
Five years ago, Boom put her faith in Christ and started coming to our church in Bangkok. A year later, Tuktik got saved. For the next year, they would both talk to their mother about Christ on the phone and their mother would ask over and over, how can I believe in God? I’ve never seen Him. Their mother could accept the knowledge that Jesus is God but she couldn’t put her trust in Him because she couldn’t imagine the person behind the words they were saying.
Then three years ago, Jeab, and Tukata, and I visited their home. Before we came, Boom and her family thought, This is unbelievable. We are poor. We have a small house; no bedroom; no living room; no food to give. Why would they want to come visit us?
I remember arriving at Boom’s aunt’s house after traveling overnight on two buses. I hadn’t slept and I was exhausted and hot and wanted to collapse on the hammock hanging from two bamboo trees next to me. Then an older, quieter version of Boom was suddenly, shyly standing in front of me. Something tugged my heart and I hugged her. Boom says that it was the first time that anyone other than her daughters had ever hugged her mother.
For two days, we lounged on hammocks, walked around their small village, and rode motorcycles past eucalyptus trees and rice fields. We visited their father plowing a sugar cane field with his tractor. The smell of warm, earthy soil reminded me of when I was younger and would spend every July and August working on blueberry fields in Maine.
Their parents kept asking their daughters, “Why do your friends look so happy when they spend time with us, even though it’s so hot and not comfortable for them?”
Boom says our visit was the first time she and her sister realized that, wow, God must really love us - Jeab, Tukata, and Debbie travelled all that way just to visit us and didn’t expect anything in return. They say that after we left, their mother told them that she could finally imagine God and His love and believed in Christ in her heart. We were the first Christians, besides her daughters, she had ever met.
It’s hard for Thai people to imagine God as a living person because ninety-five percent of the country is Buddhist - they’ve been bowing down and worshipping cold, distant stone idols for centuries. They have never met a God like this, who would leave heaven where it was comfortable, to come all the way to earth just to redeem us. Until they meet Him hanging bloody on the cross as a man, refusing to use His own power to save Himself. There is something about His strong intentions to win our salvation that is powerful enough to cut a straight path through the soul and penetrate the heart.
I’m in Boom and Tuktik’s apartment. Boom is serious, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, a pocket Thai-English dictionary beside her, talking about the women’s discipleship class we’ve been teaching over the past year.
She points to her heart…. “Each class open my heart and…” She opens her Pocket Dictionary and points to the verb, ‘hammer, rivet,’ my heart more and more.”
“Jesus went straight to Samaria to talk with the Samaritan woman. He didn’t go around Samaria like man does. She is just like me. He doesn’t hate me but loves me like the Samaritan woman. My life is not lovely but he loves me. Jesus came to our life and put a flag on my heart. He conquered all things, the world, the flesh, the devil. Before, I was in love with the idea of love. Now, I know that this is real love.”
Deep in the heart, Thai women cry out for true love and security. Even if she finds what she thinks is love and gets married, no matter how beautiful or charming she is, it’s never enough. It is normal for a Thai man to have at least one girlfriend or minor wife; some have several minor wives, each with a family to support. It is just a matter of time until someone younger, prettier, or who speaks a little sweeter comes along and catches his attention.
A Thai woman has never met a man who values her or treats her with respect, until she is standing face to face with Christ, alone, like the woman taken in adultery in John chapter eight. It’s like He’s holding out His own blood, saying, “Look how much you are worth. I made a way for you to be face to face with God inside the Holiest Place. Come. I want to tell you that you are forgiven, cleansed, and accepted in the Beloved. No one can ever undo what I have done.”
Boom tells me, “I had so many questions in my heart I couldn’t speak, like, I’m not beautiful. Like the woman in Song of Solomon chapter one, I compare everything about myself with other persons. But God says, ‘Stop and look at me, I will talk to you something. Even if you (think you) are not beautiful, you are beautiful to me.’”
I’m stretched out on Boom’s leather couch, weak because it’s hot and humid and the air pressure is high. I think about how these classes started as a small impression in my heart that rose to the surface and formed ideas and words and I’m a little overwhelmed that something that started out so small and insignificant could become so powerful in another person’s life.
A Cry for Love
It is February and Boom and I are waiting for the van to go to Mahachai, a fishing village an hour outside of Bangkok, for a special outreach. We have just had our Saturday morning woman’s discipleship class about Esther. We talk about how so much of Esther’s life was hidden – years of secret little choices where she lost her life at the cross and then that moment came, and she made that one big decision to go in to see the king, and generations of her people lived.
In the van, on the way to Mahachai, Boom reads Philippians chapter two to me from her new English Gideon’s pocket Bible. She stumbles over every word. The van driver keeps accelerating, swerving, and then braking. I sit with my eyes closed and think of how beautiful Boom’s words sound and how much I don’t want to be in this van because I’m so car sick.
We go soulwinning at a park in Mahachai and meet a girl lying on a hammock with a short bob haircut and skin darkened by the sun. She says she has heard information about Jesus in school, but she sits up, stretches her legs to the grass, and leans forward when she hears us talk about love.
It’s Valentine’s Day. Boom chops the air emphatically as she translates and I feel the power of the Holy Spirit as I speak. God loves you and never takes His love back. Man says he loves you then changes his mind about you, but God’s love is different. He gives His love and will never take it back.
When we ask if she would like to receive Jesus and His love into her heart, she nods her head, yes. After she prays her eyes widen when we tell her that she belongs to Jesus now and that she can talk to Him anytime. He is always there to help. When the bad thing comes, you can say no, I belong to Jesus. You can say “no” one time and save yourself an entire life of suffering.
She’s thirteen and her role in society will always be to serve the man – well over 6% of all Thai women end up engaged in some form of prostitution, but we walk away feeling like she received every word we said and that those words could possibly save her life someday.
In the van, on the way home, I think of how there was something about this day that was lighter than air. I close my eyes and see mist rise and mix with mist from other days. It collects as a shadow superimposed above the mountains and valleys of the earth. I turn to Boom sitting next to me and say, “This was a day of resurrection life wasn’t it?
“Yes, this day was like a strong, powerful word to me,” she says.
Discipleship takes time in Thailand. You think the seed of the Word is planted, just to realize it never even germinated because it wasn’t received in the heart; the heart still hides behind an endless maze of twists, turns, and abrupt walls, and insists, “I’ve been trusting in my own goodness and karma for centuries. I don’t need God. I’m fine on my own,” until God orchestrates a situation like in John chapter eleven. Martha and Mary’s brother, Lazarus, dies and the heart realizes that everything it has been trusting in and holding on to will someday come to an end.
I’m talking to Boom again in her apartment and her eyes are red. She says, “My whole life I’ve been trying to fulfill myself by myself. With relationships…” her hands fly up, “with everything.” She shakes her head and reaches for her Whinnie the Pooh tissues. “But, I can’t satisfy myself anymore.”
I see tears and hear the surface of her heart fissure and crack and the sound of movement intensifying: Christ, resurrected, leaping over mountains and skipping over hills, approaching a breaking heart. There’s something about the way He doesn’t force His will onto us, just shows us how different His life really is, that attracts the will and causes it to weaken and bend.
When Boom says, “Now I know only Christ can fulfill me,” I hear a piece of the wall around her heart snap and splinter to the floor.
Buddhism teaches that to reach ultimate satisfaction, or Nirvana, you have to empty yourself of all human desire. I see it as a subtle detachment in a Thai’s face and movements, sitting on the bus, walking on the sidewalk, never caring or thinking deeply about anything.
Their spirit comes alive as a believer, but still so much of their life sleeps. Nothing stirs them into action, until a resurrected Christ arrives at their wall. To Him, death and sleeping are the same. He draws near to a broken place and speaks a word powerful enough to raise Lazarus from the dead, “Rise up and walk in newness of life. My plan isn’t for you to die; it’s for you to live.”
When Boom tells me that seeing the difference between death and resurrection life in the second semester of our class made her want to choose life and that she really started making decisions during the third semester when she learned about Esther, I hear concrete walls, generations of passivity, crumble and collapse with a bang.
Can we measure the value of days when Lazarus dies and life separates into jagged edged pieces that don’t fit back together again? Like Martha, we shake our head and say, Lord, if you had only been here. Then Jesus, who is weeping, speaks, “If you only knew - those are all earthy, dying fragments of yourself, you can’t keep anyway.”
Can we measure the value of death, when its Christ Himself deposited and mixed inside all those broken places?
Or the power of His words, undefined but full of meaning, bubbling with energy just below the surface of consciousness inside our new heart, anchoring the soul, and setting everything right. A thought rises to the surface and takes on form. Christ, walking on the surface of water, speaks, “Come. Take up your cross and follow me. This is what it means to truly live.”