16,000 kilometers. 9,941 miles. Ten and a half timezones. Three planes. Two buses. Over 40 people. Sometimes, numbers can be both incredibly revealing and quite dulling. Once a certain threshold has been reached, numbers become abstractions. Try to picture every star in the night sky or ever grain of sand on the beach. You may be able to fathom such immense detail for a time, but a point comes when generalities become far more practical for our minds to comprehend. We can easily comprehend what a stadium of 43,000 people looks like, but we cannot fully appreciate the unique detail given to each individual. In writing this summary of my recent vacation to Southeast Asia, I do not want the sheer amount of detail to be lost on you, because each number shared here is representative of someone like you or I. Each uniquely created, uniquely gifted, with a story to go along with them! Even I do not know the full story of each person I interacted with during my brief time on the other ends fo the globe. I wish to dispel the cynicism that can easily overtake us when we are told large numbers or what could be considered cliche. Frankly, nothing that occurred during my time in Southeast Asia could be considered cliche or simplistic. What follows is an account of the work God, the almighty creator of the universe, is doing in the other-most reaches of the world.
I am convinced that the closest thing to time travel that we have is air travel. Travel to the East, and your 24 hour day becomes 15. Travel to the West, and your 24 hour day becomes 36 hours long. You can see the sun rise in the morning in one airport, land at another at noon, leave on another flight, and land at your final destination just a mere 4 hours later. What kind of magic is this? Time. In order to arrive in Southeast Asia, henceforth shortened to SEA, I had to endure three different flights with various layovers over the course of three days. I’ve learned over the years the best way to overcome the rigorous demands of travel is to drink as much water as you can, as often as you can. The pressurized cabins of airplanes are notorious for causing dehydration and because your ability to move is greatly restricted, the desire to hydrate is diminished. I was determined to be attentive, alert, and fully present once we arrived at our destination. Upon meeting up with the rest of the team, I was energized. I was ready to go! There is work to be done!
However, before the work could begin, we had to take a long bus ride to the compound that we could call home for the week. While this should have taken roughly four hours by all logical reasoning, our trek turned into six hours because traffic works differently in this part of the world. As we would learn, we are on SEA time and that means we arrive when we arrive. All things considered, we were on an adventure! The bus we rode in was unlike any other I had been on. You could sleep in a bed that resided over the standard seats below. Think about the Night Bus in Harry Potter and you’ve got a good start.
We chugged along at whatever speed we were presently able to go, with intermittent stops, and even a portion of time where we were reversing against oncoming traffic! All the while, I talked with my friends, L., B., and H. about what they had been up to before I made my rendezvous with them. We laughed about the craziness of our rather eclectic bus, watched the incredible landscapes against the sun zoom by, and laughed at random stories and jokes and memes. I, being someone who is rather fond of quality time, really enjoyed being with my friends and sharing in the experience of our journey. We finally arrived at our compound in a bustling little city in the heart of the jungle and we settled in for the night by finding our bunk mates and preparing for dinner.
So technically, our first day in SEA was entirely dedicated to travel… but there is so much to tell! In fact, at the time of our arrival, there was a wedding being hosted in our compound which meant that the night was going to be full of partying and fireworks! B. had already told us about how she had crashed one wedding in her time in SEA and as we wrapped up dinner we decided to go outside to see what all the commotion was about. Our curiosity was short lived, however, and I headed off for bed.
The morning came quickly for me, as I was wide awake at three in morning (which became a common occurrence for those in our compound during our stay) and I tossed and turned until I finally decided it was late enough to justify being out and about. I got dressed and stepped out into the very warm morning. The sound of tennis balls being plopped back across the net filled the city’s symphony. A cacophony of car and motorcycle horns constantly punctuated the soundscape. I was at home! I went downstairs and awaited breakfast.
Breakfast and dinner were communal affairs, which I sorely miss, as the entire team sat down to share a meal together over pleasant conversation. Toast with butter and jelly were served to us with omelettes with a masala twist, and to top off such a fine meal, chai tea! I cannot explain or describe how this spiced tea differentiated from what we call chai in America, but I can only tell you that it is so much better than what we drink! One of our local leaders told me to savor it as much as I could because I would not be able to recreate it back home. They were correct, I couldn’t!
After breakfast, we moved on to orientation where we gave introductions to everyone who was with our group. Basically, we shared our name, what we do, etc. You know, the simple basic questions. However, when it got to my turn, I was given some additional questions that nobody else was given. Was I single. Yes. And if I was searching. Also yes. Apparently, our designated leaders like to also play matchmakers. Who needs Christian Mingle after all? Jokes aside, it was here in orientation that our teams were developed. Breaking into teams of three, which had been assigned prior to our departures, we began to get a sense of what roles we were going to take for this first day. Some would lead introductions, others would share stories, and others, still, would lead prayer.
Due to my circumstances, I was the odd man out. A man without a team. However, I sat back and awaited my instructions as I would be team hopping each day. Many factors played into my role during the week, but I was excited for any and every opportunity that God had in store of us. So while the teams found their rhythms, I went through my pack and doubled checked my gear. If you did not already know, I am a photographer and will take photos where I am with whatever I have. It just so happened that I had a ton of gear to use this time around and wanted to make sure it was in tip top shape for the day ahead.
Once everything began to wind down, we packed up and headed for the cars to leave the compound. As I walked through the entrance of the compound I was told to head out with my first of many teams. I joined B. S. and L. and our local leader and translator in our tiny vehicle and drove out of the city and into the jungle. I somehow managed to get my 25lbs bag into my lap and into the front seat. If I had known now what I didn’t then, I would have packed my gear differently. Fortunately, tomorrow is a new day! We drove for roughly 40 minutes away from the compound into the fields and forests which rural farmers worked. Each village we passed was more colorful and poor than the last, and the cows wandered the roads like stray dogs. If one did not know any better, they very well would have been asking themselves about how peculiar everything they were seeing was.
The more we drove, the more I was reminded of my time in the Middle East. The homes built in similar ways, traffic behaving in similar ways, the nature of small, dense villages brought back many memories. The biggest difference being in where there would have been sand, there were now trees and fields. We pulled aside on a dirt road, in front of a red temple for some god, and crossed the street to a homestead made of five units. Our local leader escorted us to the first home where we promptly removed our sandals and greeted an older gentleman and his son. With a small bow, the pressing of our hands together as though we were praying (called “giving honor” mudra), and a warm “namaskar” or “I bow to you with respect.” I was given the only plastic chair to sit in just inside the doorframe, and others were quickly gathered from adjacent homes when word spread of our arrival. Our team each had a seat and L. began making introductions by thanking the family for receiving us in their home and telling them that we had come from a far away place just to meet them!
As we made small talk through our translator, more villagers gathered just outside the doorstep. Women sat tightly together in whatever available space was present, and men sat on the stoop as B. shared a story with them from the Bible. I do not recall which story specifically B. shared with them, but he was very animated and full of passion as he recounted scripture. My head, naturally on a swivel, panned around as I took in every detail of the people who sat with us, those passing by, the details of the way in which the people lived. I was never taken aback or hit with extreme culture shock, nor had I held any preconceived notions or expectations coming into SEA. We, then, shared stories and extended an invitation for those who had been listening to respond to the glory and power of Jesus Christ. They accepted!
Having shared a story, a testimony, and greeting, we moved on to the next home as some of the villagers followed closely behind. We kicked off our sandals and greeted the people living there as our translator pointed out the many idols that were littered across the entry way, showed us the shrine that they had made to worship their idols. Thus, as we settled into out seats, I felt a tug on my soul. A single name was pressed upon my lips, and as my teammates and I looked at one another pondering what story we should share, I just said “Elisha.” One man, a prophet of the one true God, against 400 prophets of the false god Baal. Such an incredible scale and opposition would speak directly to the true, mighty power of the almighty God! So, as L. made introductions, I turned into scripture and skimmed through the passage to gather the more important bits that would resonate with what we had been presented with.
When my time came, I stood up and introduced the story that told of God’s power and majesty. There came a time when the people of God had turned away from Him, and they followed many false gods. One day the people approached Elisha, a man who remained faithful to the one true God. They questioned who followed the true god. Them or Elisha. So Elisha posed a challenge to the 400 prophets of the false gods, let us build an altar to our respective gods and let us ask them to answer with fire. For days, the 400 prophets of Baal cried out to their god. Cutting themselves, performing sacrifices, and anything else they could think of to spur their god to act. Elisha, watching this unfold over many days mocked the people, cried out to the prophets to yell louder for their god is surely asleep and can’t hear them or perhaps he is relieving himself. Finally, after the prophets of Baal had exhausted themselves, Elisha called for a trench to be dug around his altar and to have jar after jar of water poured out over the altar until the trench was full. Elisha prayed to God and asked Him to respond with His holy fire, and fire fell from the heavens consuming the drenched altar, the trench full of water, and the people were awestruck. Who is this God they asked. Elisha beckoned to those who believed in the true God to turn from their wicked ways.Having completed the story, I began to unpack the passage. To preach and explain the significance of what happened and who God is to us, why He sent us to America to these people, and why He wants them to turn from their sinful ways. We offered an invitation and even more came to be saved! Praise the Lord! Serious, God is so good! My words here do no do justice to the work God is doing in the nations. I wish to give you some insight to what I did, what I saw, and what I saw the Holy Spirit doing! God is doing so much more and there is far more to share than I can reasonably fit into this post. So much happened during our short time in SEA and I am eagerly looking forward to going back! So, for now, I will leave you here with some of what happened on my first day and will return soon with another look into our time in SEA!
Grace and peace to you,