Saturday, December 24, 2005

Breakfast with the Fangs-Part I

After prayer, Steve had an urge to explore a curvy trail that ran adjacent to the temple. We could see a concrete shrine not too far away, the kind the Dai people built over their wells as monuments to the water gods. The structure looked like a tall dome, with designs etched into the concrete and something like an obelisk extending from the apex of the dome. The inside was hollow and about 5 feet deep. A shallow pool of still water rested at the bottom of the hole.

Steve and I offered up another quick prayer, this one as an attack against the water gods. We prayed that the Dai would know the true provider of sunlight and rain, the two resources that enabled them to grow crops and make a living. I was reminded of Paul's encounter with the Athenians and their statue to an unknown God (Acts 17). They knew that some entity existed and provided for their needs. They just didn't know his name. That's why Paul went to them, to proclaim what had been hidden--the name of the unknown God who does not dwell in temples made by the hands of men. The parallels between his ministry and ours were obvious.

The trail curled around a fish pond and found its conclusion at a small, hut-like structure, a bit larger and sturdier than the storehouse we had seen in the field. By the ripples spreading in successive circular rings throughout the water, we could tell that the pond was teeming with life. Outside the hut, a girl of about 20 stooped on hands and knees. Every few seconds, she would grab a watermelon from the basket next to her, place it delicately on a piece of cardboard and violently chop it in half with the machete-like blade she held in her hand. I would've never expected such a fierce strike from such a dainty girl. Her action took me by surprise, but Steve and I continued to approach the hut.

Steve called out his customarily loud "ni hao," both making his presence known and conveying the fact that we meant no harm to the family by intruding on their property. Holding out a few Chinese yuan, he motioned toward the basket next to the girl, which was attached to the back of a bicycle and brimming with watermelons. She looked up from the chopping block with a confused look on her face. She didn't seem afraid, just that she didn't understand Steve's gesture. So he continued with a new charade, simulating a person eating rice from a bowl. Then he thrust the bills toward her once more and pointed at the watermelons again. Something in her mind finally clicked. She motioned toward the pond, grappling with words, trying as desperately as Steve to make herself understood. Somehow she communicated that the watermelons were food for the fish, not for people.

As Steve persisted, however, the bills started to look more appealing to the girl. The money would go into the family's treasury, so she decided to take it. There's no telling how many fish they would've had to raise and sell in order to make the amount of money we were trying to give her just for a few pounds of fish food.

I still didn't feel like she trusted us completely, but she ushered us over to the hut's "porch" where an elderly couple and a young child were seated. Pulling out those patented Chinese midget stools, she offered us a seat next to the rest of the family, who smiled happily as we crouched beside them.

Hurrying back to the chopping area, our hostess hacked a fresh watermelon in half. She gave one half and a spoon to each of us, and we dug in. I don't know if it was just the unusual context that made it so, but this watermelon was the sweetest and freshest I think I've ever tasted. It could've been the fact that this was homegrown and didn't get bounced around in a truck or tossed in a freezer somewhere. And then there's always one more possibility: Wouldn't anything taste delightful after having so many Powerbars?


The temple's overgrown courtyard, complete with spirithouses. We took the picture of the side of the temple from where that palm tree stands outside the compound's wall.

Temple Sideview

Sideview of the old Buddhist temple. As you'll learn later, we took refuge here when a storm came up.

Uncharted Villages and Strange Prayers

With asphalt back under our feet, Steve and I kept following the North Road. For a few miles we saw nothing but the road ahead, the expanse of the valley and the inquisitive faces of people passing us by on all kinds of vehicles, from motorcycles to trucks to the strangely designed tractors they used to till the land. Each face met us with the same confused look and lit up with the same childlike enthusiasm when we said "Ni hao."

We had still seen no sign of Village 1 when the paved road changed to dirt. I, for one, started wondering whether following the North Road was such a good idea. We finally had started to pass some areas of civilization. At a little restaurant/store, a lady tried to have Steve take her baby with him. Apparently she thought Steve could provide a better life for it. She may have been right, but Steve couldn't accept her offer, and we trudged on. We stopped for a moment at a school on our left where we heard the sound of children playing.

With Village 1 still nowhere in sight, we kept steadily moving. Steve never wavered about his decision to follow this road. He took a right onto a little driveway next to a fish pond. I wondered why we were turning right, when the first village on our map was supposed to be on the west side of the main road. Traveling north, that would have meant taking a left. I followed Steve quietly, but in my head and under my breath I was screaming, "Where are you GOING?!"

The detour led us into a labyrinth of villages, none of which could be found anywhere on our map. Each village had a signpost which could have helped us a ton if we had been on the correct side of the road. When I challenged him about his decision, Steve responded with something like, "Don't worry, these people need the gospel too!" I agreed, but I wanted to make sure we hit the villages on the map so that follow-up teams would have a charted course to follow with a relatively stable idea of which villages had already been exposed to the Good News. To me, each false turn had long-term implications for the future success of this mission.

After canvassing 6 or 7 of these uncharted villages, flinging VCDs over back fences and into vehicles, we came to a crossroads in our journey. We dropped our packs for a rest next to an old Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the last in a string of uncharted villages. We couldn't hear anything going on inside--no chants or anything--but we could see by the offerings laid inside the outdoor shrines posted at each door let us know that the temple was still active.

Propping our packs against the outer wall of the temple, we prayed together that God would break the bondage this temple had over its patrons, that the demons that distracted hearts from the true God would be totally deterred and that the Lord would be enthroned among these people.

A few times while praying this prayer, I had to stop and take special note of what my mouth was saying. Am I really addressing demons, those unseen creatures that follow the Father of Lies? Am I really trying to break down some wall in a realm my eyes can't even see? Being slow to comprehend this only reinforced the fact that I keep my mind on temporal things too much of the time. Acknowledging demonic powers is no less reasonable than praying to God or believing in the Resurrection. The same word that attests to God speaks of demons, and if I could believe the good promises of the Father with such ease, I must certainly accept his commission to fight a war going on in a different level of reality. Living in the full light of eternity is something that is still difficult for me. But God was teaching me to depend on him, that although I couldn't see the effects of my prayers, he was accomplishing things in the spirit realm.

Quick Change

A better look at the hut and the fields. Notice the watermelons littering the ground. Steve was actually inside that hut changing clothes.

Bamboo Storehouse

Next to the hut where I planted the VCD under the hat.

Hat Trick

A little less than a mile into the walk, we saw a few Dai houses clustered together about a quarter-mile away from the paved road. We didn't think the settlement was big enough to constitute village 1, but we turned left onto a dirt path to investigate anyway.

The path cut through a watermelon field and led us up to a structure that looked like a small, run-down barn. As we got closer, we heard dogs barking loudly and their tails wagging, thumping obnoxiously up against the wooden walls. Any chance we had for a stealthful entrance was thwarted.

I started to get a strange vibe. I felt more like a criminal intruder than someone who came to bring life through the gospel. I'm not sure if Steve felt the same way, but in any case, we somehow decided that it was too early to press our luck by getting too close. We flung a VCD near the door and turned back toward the main road.

Before we reached it, I noticed a storehouse in the field next to the road. A bamboo grid formed the skeleton of the pitiful structure, and a multicolored tarp covered its top and sides. Curious, I peeked inside, wondering if anyone could possibly be using it this early in the morning.

No human life, but I did notice a tattered straw hat hanging from one of the bamboo posts on the inside. It no doubt belonged to a farmer, and probably one that lived nearby, considering the proximity of this storehouse to the nearby homes. I was sure the hat would be put to use sometime in the near future. Agriculture is the Dai people's livelihood, and I had yet to see a farmer working in the hot sun without the aid of a straw hat. An idea came to me while looking inside.

I caught Steve's attention, telling him to wait a second. Then I tiptoed inside the makeshift shelter, pulled out a VCD and slipped it under the hat, balancing it to make sure it didn't fall out. When the owner of the hat came to work in the fields, he would have no choice but to find a seed I had sown.

The North Road

Our instructions to begin Day 2 were clear: "Go back to the place where the bus dropped you off. Then head due north out of town to start your route."

It sounded easy enough, other than the fact that our hotel was an uphill mile away from the original bus stop. After a hike that qualified as a little more than a warm-up, we found ourselves back at the drop-off point staring northward into a long, wide valley.

You would think we would jump right to it, but something held us back. We wondered if the place we got off the bus was the exact same as the one where our trainers had stopped. A false move here could lead us astray for the rest of the day and ultimately affect our plans to end up in our next city by nightfall.

We tried to make prayer the basis for our every decision, so we asked the Lord what he would have us do. We decided that this north road was the one to take. I received no direct revelation from God. I just figured that we had no other point of reference from which to begin. If we traveled in the right cardinal direction, I reasoned, the worst case scenario would be for us to anbandon our mission and find the main road where we could flag a bus to our next city.

While I was reasoning in my head (like I do so many times), Steve was listening with his heart for an answer to his prayer. He came up with the same conclusion, but he didn't arrive there by logic. He felt like the Lord was impressing him with an admonition to "follow the north road." Steve's revelation felt like the confirmation of my reasoning, and confidence that we were going in the right direction grew little by little. Small semblances of uncertainty still lingered in my head. I couldn't tell whether I was showing a lack of faith or receiving a holy unrest from the Lord, so I pushed my fickle feelings aside and trusted Steve's judgment.

It's funny how even on a trip like this, I was so quick to reason and slow to listen. Part of that comes from my unwillingness to cultivate a heart that waits on the Lord, and part of it comes from my prideful desire to take the reins of my life. That's why God brought me here, I think. To break the chains of self-dependence. In this land on a mission like this, if you're depending solely upon yourself, you won't get very far. I can't speak for Steve. I don't know if his revelation was perfectly clear and accurate. But I do know that Steve did a much better job at listening for the Lord's advice before moving.

And we moved in faith. With no landmark in sight, we let the Lord lead us full speed ahead along the North Road.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


6:30 a.m.

We were up with the sun for the second day in a row. I don't know how those pesky roosters had sniffed our trail for all those miles, but somehow they were there again, summoning us from dreamland with their obnoxious crowing.

Steve's an army guy. Being awake this early was his routine. I'm a college student on spring break, the last category of people you would expect to rise with the roosters. It took a lot to help me peel myself from that rock-solid mattress in our 80-yuan (about $10 U.S.) hotel room.

For one, the roosters were unbearable. They were like that pesky roommate who can't sleep so he makes sure no one else does either. Secondly, Steve's baritone voice had already pleaded with me to get up. But most of all, the call of God got me moving. I had really begun to focus on the urgency of the hour that we live in and my role in bringing the antivenom to a poisoned world.

There were people outside the walls of the hotel that would hear the gospel through the pieces of plastic I carried in my pack. Someone's eternal destiny could be hanging in the balance. Although I still struggle living and walking in that reality today, for the few days we were on mission, I grasped it. Was it possible to distribute some 1500 VCD's and see no fruit whatsoever? Of course. But it was also possible that one, two, or even three or more people would respond to the gospel presentation with faith in Christ, and in that instant, turn from eternal death and suffering to everlasting life and peace. Then, they could bring the peace and life they have found to surrounding villages, and revival could spread like wildfire. How selfish it would be if I let a little fatigue hinder me for fulfilling such a great calling. Success is not how many people convert, but how faithful we are with the task God has given us.

Jesus, being one with the Father, knew what would happen when he crossed the Sea of Galilee into the region of Gadara. He would soon be rejected by the town's inhabitants, men and women who feared his supernatural power and cared more about their pigs than a broken man's soul. But he crossed the sea anyway, just to reach out to one demon-possessedman. He liberated a Gentile, a man outside his fold, from spiritual oppression.

I find it interesting that the story above is found in Mark 5, the exact passage that was depicted on the VCD we were handing out. We were following Jesus' example, striving for the same kind of reckless abandon to the will of God, venturing out in love to people that don't resemble us at all culturally. Hopefully, God will honor our attempts to imitate his Son.

Good Night

The first order of business at the hotel, at least for me, was a shower. After taking full advantage of the limited supply of hot water, I emerged from the shower and put on some fresh clothes and my Teva's, which gave my feet some well-deserved relief. They had supported 30-40 lbs. more than usual today, and they had been trapped inside clunky Timberland hiking boots all day.

The day's events had really worked up our appetites, so we set out to find somewhere to eat. In this town, the only "fast food" they had were the stray dogs running down the street. There were no KFC's or McDonald's. As we thought about our options, we remembered our trainers' advice: "Food off the street is generally safe; you select the ingredients and they cook it in a big skillet right in front of you," they had told us.

Sure enough, about a block away from our hotel, an elderly woman had a stand set up with a large pot boiling on a wood-burning stove. On the table next to it, she had set up all kinds of unrecognizable foods and strange vegetables, spices, and meats. Steve hovered over the broad bowls. He squinted in the faint streetlight, struggling to make his selection. You could tell which items were the most popular, because some of the bowls were almost empty, while some were overflowing. I guessed that our best bet would be to go with the items that the locals weren't very fond of. Every time I eat in China, it seems like I can't stand the stuff they like most.

The woman nodded and smiled at me, revealing wide gaps where many of her teeth should have been. She waited patiently for Steve's request. Then they started conversing, Steve in his loud English and the woman squawking suggestions in Chinese, pointing to various bowls to answer Steve's questions, which I'm sure she couldn't understand. The two of them were quite a sight.

As entertaining as it was to watch, I felt obligated to intervene. I kept it simple and relatively safe, ordering chicken, spicy beef, and a variety of vegetables served over a bed of noodles with a side of fried rice.

A woman in her early thirties and her young son watched the exchange from a shop on the corner. A mixture of light from the fire and the lone streetlight danced on her face, which was clothed with an amused half-grin. I noticed that she had drinks for sale, so I walked over to purchase two large bottles of water. We would drink some with our meal and use the rest to pre-hydrate ourselves for tomorrow's hike.

The little boy peeked out from behind his mother as I approached.

"Ni hao!" I said, waving at him.

Although obviously a little sheepish, he mustered a "ni hao" of his own. His mother lovingly caressed his head with one hand and gave my change back with the other. Touched by their love for each other, I rejoined Steve at the plastic patio table where he sat. I glanced over at the mother and son every so often as we enjoyed a feast in the cool evening. It was great to be off the trail, and I couldn't think of a better way to end the kind of day I will one day tell my grandkids about.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Tired Sun

Sunset on a road next to the hotel.

Crouching Driver, Whistling Steve

Steve crouching next to our driver.

Movable Beds

We stepped out into a street bustling with activity as dusk settled in. Food vendors crowded the streets with little grills and pots, offering their greasy cuisine to everyone who passed by. The place was like a smalltown Chinese version of a mall food court. Some people huddled around tables, rested on stools or just stood there, but all of them were interacting with one another, sharing an evening with the community, not locking themselves inside their homes and hypnotizing themselves with TV. There was a buzz in the air, like something was about to happen. Or maybe it just felt like that because we had moved from the quiet bus out into an area overflowing with energy.

Steve and I stood there for a moment, just taking everything in. No one seemed to notice us until a truck honked to get us to move out of the road. We moved closer to the food vendors, and the smell of hot food was too much for Steve after all those Power Bars. He opted for some kind of grilled fish, skewered with a kabob on either side. I was too worried about finding a place to sleep to concentrate on snacking.

As Steve munched on his fish, I asked him if I could look at the map. He could only nod. He wiped his greasy fingers on his shorts and fished for the map in his pocket. He handed it to me, and I took a look. It made it clear that we were to continue down the road in the same direction the bus was traveling. Then we would make a few turns before arriving at the Dai minority park, the place where we were slated to stay the night.

According to our trainers, the minority park was sort of like an Indian reservation in the states. The Chinese government apparently pays Dai people to live there and carry on their indigenous lifestyle. Tourists from all over China come to visit the park to see how minorities live. If they so desire, guests can stay at one of the many traditional Dai homes located throughout the park, to experience authentic Dai cuisine and even help with a little farmwork. The park is famous for its elaborate celebrations of the water-splashing festival, the Dai minority's most important holiday.

The park was one of the main reasons Route 4 was my first choice. When I travel, I like to become more than a tourist. I like to understand the nitty gritty details of a society, how the people really interact with one another without all that canned, artificial nonsense they feed you at places designated for tourists. The way our trainers described it, I thought that even though the park was a popular tourist spot, it would be our best chance to get behind the outer walls of a Dai house and see from the inside how a household really worked.

After a few turns and almost a mile of walking, we turned left and were greeted with a huge, white concrete entryway with a booth in the center and traffic lanes running under two large arcs.

"This must be the park," I said.

Steve nodded, and we walked up to the window to pay the required entry fee. To our surprise, no one was monitoring the gate, which was standing wide open. Confused, we walked under it calling for help to any attendants that may have been nearby. Now that we were looking for people, we realized how desolate the place really was compared to the busy town.

Unsure of what to do, we started to venture into the park when a man with a security guard's badge cut us off. He didn't speak any English. Surprise, surprise. I did my best to tell him there was no one at the front office, and that we just wanted to sleep inside the park for the night. He seemed to understand, and I thought he said something about paying the entry fee upon our exit in the morning.

Steve butted in on our already frustrated conversation.

"Just tell him we want to look aroudn at the park for a minute, and then we'll come back to the gate," he said.

I relayed the message as best I could, and we started to walk in. A few seconds later, we had flagged down a three-wheeled motorcycle carriage, and we were heading away from the security gate and into the sights and sounds of the park.

It must have been off-season, because the inside of the park was just as deserted as the front gate. We saw a few Dai houses being erected on either side of the long, sinous road. We saw some large, ornate buildings that looked like restored Buddhist temples from ancient times. In the middle of the park, there was a round courtyard with a gilded fountain in the middle which we assumed was used in the dances of the watersplashing festival. All this, and almost no people.

We had been told the place would be hopping with activity. We thought there would be dancing and merrymaking, and music wafting over from one side of the valley to another. Unfortunately, the advertisments had been misleading, or at least meant for another time of year.

When our crowded vehicle pulled up to the authentic Dai house, we realized that there was very little about it that was "authentic." Steve and I had been traipsing through Dai villages all day. They were not about to pull a fast one on us. The wood on the house looked too new and manufactured, unlike the dark natural wood we saw in the villages. When we went inside, everything looked and felt plastic and generic, not like a home. The rooms were small, and they had no beds.

In Chinese, I asked the attendant, "Where are the beds?"

With a flurry of gestures and fast words, he conveyed that they would bring the beds in later. There's no telling what beds that could be moved that easily would do to our aching backs. I shot Steve a glance across the room, and his face said it all.

"We don't want it," I said in Chinese, and I walked outside and got back into our taxi. This was the most blatant tourist trap I had ever seen in China, and Steve and I were a little disappointed. It's not that we thought we were too high-class to stay there. Quite the opposite. We took one look at the prices and realized it was too high for our taste, especially with movable bamboo beds.

When Steve and the driver caught up, they asked me what I wanted to do. I looked up the word for hotel in the English/Chinese dictionary, and I told the driver to take us to the nearest one. In a few minutes, as we exited the park, we passed our friend at the security gate. He waved and smiled. In less than a minute more, the driver had stopped in front of a tall building. He pointed to it and repeated the word for hotel that I had just learned. I thanked him very much and paid him a little extra for his trouble. He still looked a little disoriented as he rode away, like he was confused about what had happened in the last 15-20 minutes.

I hope this place has real mattresses, I thought, and we trudged up the steps to our shelter for the night.

Blind Faith and Passes

When we pulled into the bus station, all four of us felt relieved. Steve and I were finally in a place we recognized, and we had 30 minutes to catch a bus to our next town. The Bills had one more night here, so they said a quick goodbye and hurried off to rendezvous with Brad and Evan, who had spent the day by themselves, pedaling around the countryside on rented bicycles.

I went up and bought a ticket at the window. By now I was a pro. I already had to do it once today, and I felt a little more confident with my limited Chinese after talking with so many villagers. Steve grabbed his ticket and began trying to match the numeral on the ticket with one of the license plates of the buses outside. Going from bus to bus, he squinted down at the ticket then back up at each license plate until he found ours. There were probably over 20 buses pulled into the station.

The driver, who was apparently waiting on paying passengers to fill his vehicle, had assumed a squatting position on the ground, a customary posture for relaxation in China. Steve, trying a little too hard to assimilate, mimicked him by squatting down next to him. The driver half smirked and half smiled, revealing a mild hint of both amusement and annoyance. They continued like that for another 15 minutes or so, until the last of the passengers found their way to the bus.

Our bus wasn't nearly full. I think there were 3 other people besides Steve, me, and the driver. It was a good thing too, because this "bus" was more like a 10-passenger van, with three or four rows of tattered, dusty brown seats and no aisle in the middle. Steve and I shrunk down in our seats with plenty of room, a pleasant change from our first two rides that had been packed to capacity.

Since we weren't carrying much weight, I guess the driver figured he could drive the van like Mario Andretti. About 15 or 20 minutes out of town, we began on a road that had us snaking around blind curves and clinging to the side of the mountain. Of course, there was no guardrail on the side of the incline, just rows of trees painted white up to about five feet for better visibility at night. It was not quite dark yet, but I was tired from our long day. After I watched our driver repeatedly pass people on the left going while swerving around a blind curve, I decided it would probably be better if I slept until we reached the town. The ride was only 45 minutes, and I figured the ignorance of sleep would be bliss compared to watching us catch two wheels on hairpin turns and narrowly evade massive collisions.

With the Lord's help (I don't see how we would have survived otherwise) we made it to our destination. Steve shook me awake right after he had frisbeed a VCD into a crowd on the side of the road. He watched a man pick it up and look at it curiously. A few minutes later, our bus was stopped, and Steve's squatting partner was waving us goodbye.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Colonel

It wasn't even 4 p.m. and the day had already been exciting and eventful. Even with all the anxiety, Steve and I were having a blast. We looked forward to the rest of our bus ride, a time we assumed would be filled with tranquil reflection on the day and what we wanted to accomplish before it was over.

Just out of town, the bus stopped to pick up some passengers. I thought I saw a flash of white hair shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight as the passengers boarded the bus. Sure enough, it was bill Shorey, my pastor, followed close behind by Col. Bill Rieger.

Steve and I had staggered our seating (as if it wasn't obvious that we were together) for comfort and cover. When the Bill's made their entrance, we did just as we had rehearsed in Thailand, exchanging greetings in loud, clear voices, trading handshakes as though this we were meeting for the first time by coincidence.

Bill settled into the seat next to mine, and after a little more show, we began to quietly discuss the day's events. Bill revealed that he and Rieger had encountered PSB landcruisers on more than one occasion, and I told him about all the trouble we had catching our connecting buses.

It was a relief to see familiar faces, and we began to talk and laugh. Before too long, Shorey and I had to curtail our conversations to avoid giving off the vibe that we had come to China together.

Just then, the bus came to a halt. We heard stern voices outside bounce from one side of the bus to the other. Out the window, I caught a glimpse of what looked like the shiny black stock and barrel of some sort of automatic weapon. After further observation, I surmised that we had been stopped at a checkpoint, and I hoped this obstacle wasn't somehow linked to the questionable activities of the Bill's back in the villages.

Both of the officers looked young. I guessed that they were no older than me, but even so, they looked stern in those green uniforms, like they were not to be messed with.

The officer who stopped the bus boarded it, glaring at all the passengers as he asked for identification. His buddy stood watch outside, brandishing his machine gun. I wondered if he was trained to use it, or if it was just for intimidation. I didn't want to find out.

As the first officer inched closer to us through the crowded aisle, my anxiety started to build. Then Rieger, who was sitting in front of us, spoke up in a calm voice without looking back.

"I'll handle this. Don't give him anything yet," he said.

Shorey and I sat there dumbfounded as Rieger fumble through his bag. In a few seconds, he pulled out a paper copy of his passport. He was giving us commentary the whole time. I was tempted to laugh, but I kept my cool.

"Okay," Rieger said, "I'm handing this to him upside-down. Let's see if he turns it over."

Now, that's what training does for you, I thought. If the officer doesn't turn it over, it's obvious that he can't read anything it says.

The officer got frustrated with Rieger's antics. When Rieger handed him the passport, he didn't turn it over. We relaxed a little. If the guy couldn't even read English, he really had no grounds to do anything to us. Plus, if he asked us to come with him, we could play dumb, like we didn't understand anything he was saying.

"This guy doesn't know what the heck he's looking at," Rieger continued calmly, never challenging the man in uniform.

Soon, like a bear that had lost its appetite for American flesh, the officer turned and walked out of the bus, motioning to the driver that he was okay to continue.

As we began moving, the tension level in the bus was still high, like everyone was having a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest. Shorey and I both patted Rieger on the back, commending him for his quick thinking. Then we sat back in our seat and let out relieved sighs. After a few minutes of silently processing what happened, Bill looked over to me quizzically.

"Did that guy outside have a machine gun?!" he asked loudly.

"I think so, pastor," I said, "I think so."

We laughed together and rode a wave of adrenaline back to the city. In this situation, we were glad to have the Colonel on our side.

Another Helping Hand

We were unable to read the characters on any of the buses, so we hoped to get some help from the locals. Although we were in a hurry, I paused for a moment to take a picture of Steve next to a large hog wallowing in a mudhole in an alley branching off the main street.

I spotted a family sitting in front of their feed store, not doing much of anything but enjoying each other's company and watching the day go by. They looked friendly enough, laughing with one another and talking in that loud, animated style used so frequently by Chinese in their conversations.

A few of them went silent when I approached; the others continued their rowdy conversation. To the ones that paid me attention, I did my best to convey that we needed to get on a bus to base city.

"Bus...we go..[city name]," I said in flustered Mandarin.

The lady that I had approached personally acknowledged my words and told us to sit and wait a few minutes. From what I gathered, she said that they would let us know when a bus to our base city came by.

As we waited, a shirtless young man took a particular interest in us, joking with Steve about how big and strong he was. He lugged Steve's pack over to the scale in the feed store and weighed it. The reading he got astonished him. Then, like any macho guy would do, he heaved it up onto his shoulders to test his strength. The whole family applauded heartily as he took a few bumbling steps, and we all had a good laugh together.

Every time a bus would come near, we would get up from the midget-sized stools and get ready to leave. Each time, they would plead for us to sit down again. Apparently they were watching out for us. We had no choice but to trust them.

Soon, a purple and white bus crunched toward us along the gravel and dirt road. Steve's shirtless friend jumped up to check it.

They all shouted our city's name, pointing frantically to the oncoming bus.

"Thank you! Goodbye!" I shouted in Chinese as we lugged our packs across the street to flag it down. This wasn't an empty 'thank you'. It was a truly heartfelt expression of gratitude. I couldn't believe how hospitable they had been to us. Without their help, I have no idea how we would've selected the right bus and gotten back to our base city.

Just to be sure, I asked the driver if this was the right bus. He affirmed it, and I let out a sigh of relief. For the next few hours we would settle into some cushioned seats and save some strength for the next leg of our journey.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Our Chariot

My resolve was renewed after my dialogue with God, but that didn't change the fact that we still had a few more grueling miles to hike before getting back to town, where we could flag a bus to the base city.

It was almost 3:00 by now, and our pace was dragging after walking over 10 miles in over 4 hours. We had been up before 6 a.m. to catch the original bus that took more than 2 hours to get to our starting point.

I took one last look at the final village, its buildings gradually shrinking as we moved farther down the desolate dirt road toward the city. Our inability to follow the map had led us into uncharted villages like this one. I figured the detour was worth it because we had expanded our influence. Now, a few more people will have heard of the Savior. I just hoped taking on those last few villages wouldn't compromise our plan for the rest of the trip.

The prospects for getting back to base city in time to catch our 6 p.m. bus to our final destination for the night were looking pretty dim. We still weren't sure how far away the town was, and walking at this sluggish pace, it would take almost an hour to cover two miles. Our trainers had told us that if we wanted to make it back to base city in time to catch our transfer, we would need to leave this town by 3:30. To do that, we'd need a small miracle.

As I was pondering our helplessness, I heard the faint rumbling of an engine in the distance. I didn't get my hopes up. The noise could easily have been the firing of a tractor engine, and we could walk faster than those things could putter along. Even if it was a motorcycle taxi, there's no guaranteeing that it wasn't already occupied. A few had already passed us by, the passengers looking at us as if they couldn't believe someone could be stupid enough to trek through China's Death Valley on foot.

It seemed like an eternity before the driver was visible on the horizon. Sure enough, his standard red helmet peeked over the handlebars, assuring us that he was a taxi driver, not just some common farmer trying to get from A to B. As he got closer, though, we realized something: there was only one vehicle.

Now, when I talk about motorcycles in China, please don't envision a Harley. These dirtbikes were barely large and powerful enough to carry one of us with a pack. There was no way we'd both be able to hitch a ride.

But that was the beauty of the situation. Somehow, beween my limited Chinese and Steve's erratic gesturing, we communicated to the driver our plans. He would take me into town first, then come back and pick up Steve, bringing him to the same place he dropped me off. Although reluctant, he understood. Steve flashed his wad of Renminbi to assure the driver that his kind service would pay off in the end. Steve nodded toward the bike.

"Hop on," he said, "and stay put wherever he drops you. I'll be right behind you."

I nodded, straddled the seat, and tapped the driver to let him know I was ready to go.

Thank you Lord, I prayed under my breath as we left Steve in the dust. I didn't like the idea of splitting up, but this taxi may as well have been an angel chariot as far as I was concerned. I had the calm assurance that Steve and I would be reunited soon, so I took the time to relax and enjoy the ride.

I unholstered my digital camera, which had been strapped to my side all day without getting much use. I took a 15-second video of the ride, making a panorama of the horizon which was interrupted in part by the big red dome of the driver's helmet. After returning the camera to its case, I stealthily unzipped my fanny-pack. I had some unused VCD's left, and I wasn't about to waste them.

On the right side of the road, I saw a few small homes with children playing in the yard. I seized the opportunity to frisbee a few VCD's off the bike, praying they would fall into hungry hands.

A few minutes later, I dismounted on the side of a dusty, paved street lined with a variety of shops and vendors. There were people milling about everywhere, most of them minding their own business, some of them stopping to stare at me and wonder where I had come from and why. In Shanghai, seeing a white man is not a big deal, but this was smalltown China, the Mississippi of the Far East. Once again I was out of place, and this time, alone.

"My friend..." I said to the driver in Chinese, pointing back toward where we had come from. He nodded and turned his bike around. About 15 minutes later, the taxi returned, this time sagging under the weight of a smiling Steve and his hefty pack. I never thought I'd be this glad to see Steve.

"You ready to catch that bus?" he asked.

"Let's do it, Team Leader."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Perspectives of Pain

We breezed through the last village of the day, making many drops and liquidating most of our VCD inventory. As we circled around the back side of the village to rejoin the main road, Steve led us off the beaten trail into another bamboo forest, much like the one we had seen earlier.

I wondered where we were going, but before I could say anything, Steve stopped and began taking off his shoes. Worried that his feet would blister, he decided now was as good a time as any to take a break and doctor his tired toes. My feet felt fine at least as far as blisters go, so I let my pack fall to the ground and laid back, using it as a pillow while I waited for Steve.

The stalks in this forest were tall and thick. A cool breeze whispered through the tree tops, producing one of the most relaxing sounds I had ever heard in nature. When Steve hopped up to leave, I wanted to lie there and sleep. The rustling leaves, the faint creak of the stalks as they swayed in the wind, the sunlight dancing through the openings in the leafy canopy above meshed together to create the perfect environment for napping.

But Jesus said that we'd better not be caught sleeping when he returns, and there was yet work to be done, so I reluctantly arose from my shady spot and we ventured back onto the trail.

As I dragged my feet over the rocky path, they began to ache, and I began to question my ability to endure next four to five miles we had to walk back into the city. At college, I would run or play basketball once or twice a week, but those short spurts of endurance activity had not prepared me to walk 15 miles per day with a 30-pound pack weighing me down.

When I had chosen Route 4, I knew the road would be long and tough, but I also knew my heart had just the right balance of determination and dependence on God's strength. When my legs began to fail me, he held me up. After all, I was answering his call, and when he calls us to something, he inevitably provides the resources to complete the task.

Does this mean the pain in my legs and back was instantly taken away? No, quite the opposite actually. It may sound masochistic at first, but He actually gave me a heart that was focused on the suffering. He gave me his heart, helping me endure this little portion of suffering willingly in hopes that my efforts might reap eternal fruit.

Every time I complained, he lifted my eyes to the cross--to a new perspective unclouded by the fears of the world, untainted by the me-centered, God-wants-my-life-to-be-easier mentality we so often hear proclaimed from pulpits in the U.S. My load is light compared to the the Roman cross and the heap of sin that he carried up the hill called Golgotha. My feet may have been sore, but they had not been impaled by a nail. My heart was heavy, but the spiritual weight of his task forced the Son of God to his knees in anguish in Gethesemene.

Thanks Lord, I thought, for the privilege of walking down the road of sacrifice, however menial the sacrifice may be, for your sake. Forgive me for even thinking about comparing my pain to yours. Your power is made perfect in this weakness. Have your way in me and in these people. I am your ambassador. The one being sent cannot be greater than the Sender.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Deep Roots

Buddhism's roots run deep in the area where the Lord sent us, but it wasn't a monk or a temple that helped me realize just how far down they go.

On the road that led out of town, we stumbled upon a massive banyan tree bursting from the earth, its huge roots like eager tentacles grasping the sidewalk around it. This was one of the largest trees (in sheer girth) I had ever seen. I've been to Muir Woods, a famous Redwood forest in California, and this tree could hang with most of the ones there.


Interesting word choice, considering how banyan trees accumulate their mass. According to Evan, our resident forester, the banyan tree's branches droop toward the earth, growing ever longer until the make contact with the ground. Once they've reached it, they don't stop growing. Rather, they've just begun.

These hanging branches form root systems of their own and begin to produce for themselves the more branches, which repeat the cycle and enable the tree to grow relatively quickly--outward rather than upward.

I had taken a picture beside a huge banyan in Thailand. It was wrapped in colorful ribbon, and a colony of spirit houses had been erected next to it. In Thai Buddhism, we learned, there is something spiritual about these old trees. I guess they figure something that's been around for such a long time possesses some kind of cosmic favor within the circular life cycle.

Whatever it was, the tree standing before us had inherited a double portion of it. Though not quite as tall, it was at least twice as wide as its Thai counterpart.

Two men stood near the tree, quiet and still. I couldn't tell wheher they were mediatating, taking a short break from work, or just enjoying the shade, hoping that some of the tree's good luck would rub off on them.

We greeted the men, both of whom had watched us approach. The first guy smiled, revealing bright white teeth that contrasted sharply from his tan and weathered face. He almost looked Mexican rather than Chinese. His eyes were slanted, but his face was slender, rather than broad, and his skin was darker than that of most Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in China).

"What's its name?" Steve asked, nodding toward the tree.

"How should I know?" I replied.

"Well, ask them if you don't know," he said, acting as though it would be simple for me to spout off some Chinese.

I did, and the reply came quicker than I expected. I kept the name in my memory bank just long enough to relay it to Steve, who nodded in affirmation. He had no more idea what it was than he did before I told him.

The second man kept his distance from us, allowing the first one to interact with us. I asked the first guy to take a picture with me and he agreed. Steve snapped it as we crouched, the giant tree looming behind us.

As we walked away, waving and smiling, I thought to myself, "You think this tree's big? I know the God who made it, along with everything else on earth."

How could these guys (or anyone else) worship the creation instead of the Creator? Well, the attributes of God are clearly visible from what has been made (Romans 1), but no one had told these people about the God whose qualities are on display. They have eternity written on their hearts, but they don't know who holds the pen.

Enter the Roadmakers, traveling across the world to carry out the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21), making introductions between ignorant people and the God who no longer tolerates ignorance as an excuse (Acts 17:30).

Buddhism, like the roots of a banyan tree, runs deep. One day, the same God that made the banyan tree will uproot all deceptions that hold helpless souls in spiritual bondage.

Alley-oop: A VCD-Drop Highlight Reel.

A few motorcycle taxis and lots of steps later, Steve and I found ourselves on the outskirts of a village, looking eastward at a vast stretch of rice fields. The fields were laid out in long rectangular grids with heaped and hardened mud providing the outline and foot-deep, silty soil filling the middle. I know very little about harvesting rice, but the plants seemed young. They were barely long enough to sprout through the shallow layer of water on the floor of the field.

As we tight-roped our way over the mud embankments, we surveyed the scene around us. About 200 yards away, a lone tree stood next to the main road, two motorbikes propped beneath it. Even farther away, a little less than a mile, lay another the village which would be our last drop zone for the day.

Past the tree, back onto the main road, and into the village we trudged, our minds alert and our spirits sensitive even though our physical strength was slowly depleting. Our drops went smoothly there. Steve and I started having some fun, frisbeeing VCD's into people's backyards, up onto second-story porches and hiding them in vehicles and woodpiles.

Before leaving Thailand, we had prayed that we would be accompanied by angels on the trail. We implored God to dispatch his most elite, Michael and Gabriel, to guide our tosses and to protect us from any evil that may have been lurking in the villages.

Once, Steve made an impossible toss, landing a VCD in a location with a slim margin for error. A miss could have put a VCD in the middle of the street and our mission in danger. We thanked God for the accuracy and joke with each other about how Steve had thrown an "alley-oop" to Gabriel.

Another time, walking one of the gravel pathways within the village, we encountered a man with a bicycle. He was stopped in the middle of the road and had been watching us since we turned the corner.

I nudged Steve, "Distract him somehow, and I'm going to slip one in his bike basket."

Steve obliged, acting like he was going to take a picture of the guy. While he posed I slyly slipped a VCD from my pocket into his basket, stuffing it softly underneath some of his belongings.

"That guy'll have some entertainment when he goes home tonight," I said as we walked away. We slapped each other high fives, providing another person the chance at redemption--and having a lot of fun doing it.

The Next Generation

Jesus said we would have to become like a child--filled with curiosity, tenderness, and a faith that trusts the Father even in the face of the unknown--to enter the kingdom of heaven. If so, I think the gospel may have a chance in these villages, overflowing with beautiful young children whose hearts have not yet been contaminated by the world system.

In either an effort to preserve minority culture or a gesture admitting its inability to enforce its policies in the countryside, the Chinese government lifts its "one-child-per-family" policy in remote areas like this one. As a result, some families decide to have three or four kids, many of whom will grow up to become an asset in agrarian communities where manpower is the primary resource for planting and harvesting.

With the villages' population distribution moving toward the youthful end of the spectrum, I believe there is greater potential for a shift in the paradigms that make the society's wheels turn. While we should never underestimate the power of God to bring about change in the hearts of the older members of the community, we should realize that revolution usually starts with the younger generation.

The younger segment of a population has had little time to allow their instilled beliefs to petrify. If they are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, their hearts will be open to ideas which would normally be considered "foreign."

Consider an 80-year-old tree whose root systems have continually inched deeper into the earth, wrapping themselves around the rocks below and intertwining with themselves. Wouldn't a much younger tree be more easily uprooted and transplanted in a different garden? The same applies to society.

Even if the older generation totally disregarded the message of the Cross, we hoped that our efforts would plow the ground for revolution. As I discussed earlier, the idea is that generations to come will be impacted by follow-up groups.

Although they aren't aware, this people group's youth have been caught in a crossfire. With the VCD's we have fired the first shots, and we await the artillery to come behind us. Our prayer is that those who are now in the crib will later be the ones faced with the most clear and coherent presentation of Christianity ever brought to this geographical area.

Will they choose the narrow road to life or the broad path to destruction? We can't know that now. But I pray that the exposure we have given the gospel will somehow impact this choice, and that this obscure people group will someday become a bastion of Christianity in the middle of a culture entrenched in Buddhism, ancestor worship, and apathetic self-sufficiency.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Kingdom Bearers

The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

The Kingdom Belongs to Such as These

The next five or six villages appear in my memory only as somewhat of a blur. The traditional architecture, gaunt chickens and mangy dogs running around in the streets, and the grinning faces of those we met became standard observations as we went about our work.

I won't say that at this point I was used to my surroundings. That would imply a degree of comfort and a dulled sense of awe. I guess you could say that the discomfort I felt was exciting because it pushed the posh American lifestyle far from my mind. I wasn't here to be served, but to serve, and to tell of the One who gave up his heavenly dwelling to make his home on a destitute earth.

In the distance, as we left Village 7, I saw a cloud of dust rising from the road, moving toward us a little at at time. Pretty soon, the cloud dissipated and a band of children on bicycles appeared before us, pedaling their way home from school. They didn't stop in their tracks, but as each of them rode past, they did their best owl impressions to get a few last looks us.

We heard brakes squeal behind our backs. Some of them had stopped in the road to stare at us as we walked away. Our presence was too abnormal for them to simply disregard. This shattered the routine. This would be the talk of the school and the villages for days to come.

We turned to face them, and Steve hit them with the secret weapon.

"Ni hao!" he shouted.

The crowd of youngsters erupted with giggles. Steve might as well have sent a jolt of electricity into their little bodies, as their bashful curiousity instantly morphed into overt excitement. When their laughing spell was over, their wide eyes asked what their gaping mouths couldn't: Did those men really speak to us in our own language?

It took a few more "Ni hao's" from us to win their trust, but they finally realized they could return the favor. "Hello!" a few of them yelled. Undoubtedly, they had learned a few English phrases at school, and they were delighted to be able to use them so soon.

One little boy, who looked to be about 7 or 8 years old, stepped out of the crowd and called out, "I like you!" Surprised, Steve looked over at me, his eyes displaying the same excitement we had seen in their faces when we spoke their language.

"Did you hear that?" he said, laughing.

"Yeah," I answered.

"I like you too!" Steve said, shaking his head in bewilderment and calling after the boy, who had walked back over to rejoin his buddies.

As we waved goodbye to our little friends, I couldn't help thinking of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14, "Let the little Children come to me and do not hinder them; for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Bearing a Bamboo Burden

To reach Village 3, we had to follow a meandering path past a big tree and along a fork or two in the road. Two ponds located on the eastern side of the path would be landmarks to let us know we were getting close.

We ascended up a hill and veered left to enter a grove of bamboo trees. I stopped to look at a patch of tea trees climbing in distinct rows up a hill on the right side of the road. For some reason, this spot felt vaguely familiar, like we had been there before. For a second, I entertained the possibility that we had been traveling in circles. Then it hit me.

"This is the place we saw in one of the pictures," I told Steve, referring to our training session in which we had been shown various photos of the route to help us keep on track.

Grateful for the assurance, we followed the path into the bamboo forest. Steve and I felt dwarfed as we walked in the shadows. The sheer height and diameter of the shoots made them unlike any bamboo I had seen before. They compared better with our pine trees than the dainty bamboo hedges people plant in the states.

As we admired the giant stalks, we ran upon an obstacle. Two Chinese men had successfully felled a large bamboo tree and now undertook the daunting task of dragging it through the tangled brush and across the road into a pile they had already begun. Seeing them struggle, Steve joined them in their tug-of-war against the botanical behemoth.

Within a few minutes, Steve had helped them free the tree from a snag. The inertia from his pull helped him drag it (or was it dragging him?) by himself across the road.

This was the first of many polite gestures by Steve on this trip. He firmly believed that the gospel could only take root here if people associated it with the love of Jesus. For Steve, it was not enough to leave a message on someone's doorstep. He wanted to be the message. He wanted our interactions with one another and with the people to express in an unspoken language what the VCD's would explain in their native tongue: God is love, and a relationship with him will breed peace, joy, and love for one another.

Seeing the Future

Back on the trail, I realized that the slice of green melon was the only thing I had eaten all day. Ever prepared, Steve had brought a lifetime supply of Powerbars along. I asked if he would burrow through my pack and find one for me, so we stopped for a short break while he searched.

In the meantime, I took a few swigs of the luke-warm water I had been lugging around all day. Although bottled water could be bought in many roadside stores, Steve made sure I was hydrated at all times. We even pre-hydrated, drinking a liter or so of water the night before we set out on our journey.

At my insistence, we checked our map before moving forward. I wanted to be absolutely sure we dropped in each village marked on the map. I was open to the Spirit's leading, but we needed to remember the wide scope of our mission so that our "intuition" didn't trump the plan our trainers had marked out for us. After all, the Spirit also indwelt them when they walked these routes and drafted the vision for us to come.

The VCD's were not meant to bring a harvest in themselves. They were tools to break the ground so that subsequent M's could plant seed into soft, moist soil. In essence, we were using the VCD as a medium to advertise Jesus, not as a "western" religious icon, but as the Son of God who displayed mighty, supernatural power during his time on earth. The idea was that when other teams came through offering spiritual life through the name of Jesus, people who had seen the VCD would already respect his power.

Without a follow-up mission, our labor wasn't likely to bear any fruit at all. We had to think about future teams as we considered entering a village. We were there to sow the initial seed of the gospel, not to reap. When our work was finished, the Work had just begun. From the U.S., we would continue to pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers into the fields.

Village 2

Steve and I left Village 1 with a better idea of where and when to drop VCD's. With some experience under our belts, our nervous anxiety gave way to excitement. We had devised a system in which I stocked Steve with VCD's from my hip pack and he made the majority of the drops by pulling them subtly out of his spacious side pockets. I didn't feel left out. We had to get rid of over 300 VCD's, so I had plenty of chances.

Not far down the road, we saw a hodge-podge of shabby homes and shops we assumed to be Village 2. Directly on the left side of the village's main artery was a basketball court occupied by nothing but a lot of sand. I walked out into the middle of the court, making dribbling and shooting motions. Some of the onlookers smiled at my youthful spirit, but no one dared offer me a ball or challenge me to a game of one on one. They kept their distance, still unsure of what I was doing in their neck of the woods.

I rejoined Steve on the road, and we began to walk into the village. Just then, a motorcycle pulled up with baskets sagging on either side, full of some type of green melon. The tires of the bike depressed with the weight. The young boy and girl riding stopped next to us and offered us some of their produce. At first I refused, but Steve, ever adventurous, gladly accepted. The boy took out a long knife and sliced one in half, handing it to Steve. Watching him eat, I realized how hungry I was, and I stole a slice of Steve's. The melon was sweet and refreshing, especially after all the walking we had done so far.

The boy didn't make it clear whether he was giving the melons to us or expecting payment for them. Steve decided it was the least we could do to give him 10 yuan, probably a day's wages for a lowly melon vendor. As Steve handed him the crinkled 10, the boy did not object. He simply grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket. If he had intended the melon as a gift, the customary response to Steve's offer would have been a polite, but firm rejection of payment. Since he accepted so easily, I was firm in my conclusion that this guy sold melons for a living.

The melon man restarted his motorcycle and sputtered off, waving as he kicked up dust on the village's main street. Steve and I followed his trail, looking for suitable places to make drops. The village consisted of one long path with alleys branching off like the tributaries from a large river. The villagers sitting outside on the street stared at us as we strolled by. They didn't smile. Some of them even looked frightened. I felt a little bit like a prisoner being led on a parade of shame through the city. Even our customary greetings did little to lighten the mood.

Hmmm, I thought, This is pretty creepy. I wondered what made the people here so closed off to our presence. With their eyes glued to us, we couldn't make many drops, so each of us prayed silently for the fog of darkness to be lifted from this place. After exploring for a few more minutes, we made a few quick drops by some trash heaps and left the same way we had come in, suspicious eyes tracing our every step.

Service Road

Service road around Village 1. We planted our first VCD's in this area.

Linear Perspective

Our first road. Inspiring, is it not? It helped give us a singular focus on our mission: to make straight the path to God.

Bus Station

Around 7 a.m. standing at the bus station, waiting for the adventure to continue.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Village 1-Our Test Run

You can only learn so much from photographs, briefings, and notes scribbled on notebook paper. No matter how many times a soldier shoots target practice, he won't understand war until he's thrown into a raging battle with fiery explosions and bullets flying past his head. Even the best preparation can't exactly rehearse the experience, just as looking at a postcard of the Grand Canyon can't accurately relate its grandeur.

Although we had the best (and only) training available for this pioneer operation, we felt stragnely ill-prepared to go into the villages. How would we drop in heavily populated areas without being noticed? Where was the best place to hide the VCD's? How many should we distribute in each area? How would we transfer them from a backpack to hip pack to pocket without drawing attention from those around us?

The anxiety surfacing from all these questions was only exacerbated by the fact that, seemingly on the enemy's cue, the government had earlier that month issued a crackdown on "distribution of illegal religious materials by foreigners." Not only would we be thrown into the fire without much training, but we would also have the eyes and ears of government officials to worry about.

The uncertainty was dangerous to the mission, so we did our best to prepare, but certain times came when we had to do our best to listen to the Spirit, and move forward only on faith. I had an inkling that God would show us more during these times, while we weren't so focused on the physical that we forgot what he was doing in the spiritual realm. Besides, most of us were thrilled by the spontaneity of the journey. It's not every day that you get to go secret agent for the gospel, so I tried to soak up every bit of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Out of all the villages we walked through, I think I'll always remember the first. It had nothing especially appealing to distinguish it from the others, but I can't seem to shake the feeling I had dropping those first few VCD's in inconspicuous places like rockpiles and vegetable patches outside the village. It was a mixture of nervous energy and excitement, something like the mischievous feeling of trespassing tinged with the pride of receiving an award.

I kept thinking about the fact that these discs held the name of Jesus, the only way to eternal life. These people had never heard his name; they had been bound by ancestor worship and a demonic brand of Buddhism throughout their history. I had the privilege of bringing Jesus to them in an effort to break the chains. We all realized how foolish our scheme looked from worldly standards. Why would you take VCD's into an agrarian community? But we also knew that we have a God that uses the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong and wise, and that was where we focused our faith.

Steve and I circled around the village on what looked like their equivalent of a service road, and we entered the village from the back. We had been told to avoid dropping VCD's on the way into a village, but to try our best to drop as we moved away from a place they might be discovered. Backtracking, we were informed, was a good way to get deported.

The pungent odor of maneur greeted us as we passed some stables. Water buffaloes, the type of livestock primarily used in the area, peered at us through the wooden fences, chewing intently on some straw. We stopped for a photo-op--Steve in between two of the buffaloes.

"Look! Three buffaloes," I said, hoping to coax a genuine smile out of Steve. The best way to keep a low profile was to act like tourists, snapping pictures and showing our bewilderment at being immersed in a different culture. To act too trained would ignite some suspicion. Steve and I had fun together, so we didn't figure to have too many problems.

Continuing along the alleys of the village, we wandered upon a group of about six young men about my age. They appeared to be taking a break from some kind of construction work, and they were surprised to see foreigners invading their home turf. Rather than becoming defensive, however, they asked us where we were from, and I did my best to answer. We turned to leave, and Steve dropped a VCD where they would find it on their way back into the center of the village.

As we felt our way through the paved maze of brick and stone walls, we began to get more ideas about good places for drops. Because people always sifted through trash heaps in search of recyclable materials, we tended to drop most times we saw one. Woodpiles also became a favorite place to stash the gospel. When people retrieved wood to make a fire, we hoped they would catch a gleam of light reflecting off the CD and grab it.

For fear of wandering eyes, we only dropped 8 or 9 in Village #1. Scouting was the more important objective, and so we would be prepared for the other villages we would visit on Day 1. One down, fourteen to go.

We are the Pavement

With the Lord's guidance, Steve and I had found our way. We pulled out the few small sheets of notebook paper that would serve as our guide for the adventure and studied them diligently, finally beginning to walk the steps we had plotted in our planning sessions.

I was excited to be on the ground, hiking in the steps the Lord had marked out for us. We were there, standing in the gap, physically fulfilling the purpose of all the fund-raising, physical training, constant prayer, and thousands of miles we had already traveled. I was reminded of the proverb, "In his heart, a man makes plans, but the Lord directs his steps," a verse of scripture that God would make very real to me before the trip was done.

After a few turns, we found ourselves in the middle of a vast valley. Lush mountains stood on all sides of the horizon, and we strained to see small settlements nestled in the foothills, tiny specks of brown and white against the ocean of green and blue which colored the harvest fields and the summer sky. Corn, watermelon, and rice fields extended as far as the eye could see, bound only by well-worn dirt roads that ran between the storehouses and villages.

We came to an intersection and turned left, veering onto a trail that bisected a corn field for a straight shot to our first village, which was still a mile or more away. Reaching this road, I had to stop. I wasn't tired yet; I wanted to take a picture of the path before us. Straight as an arrow with wheel tracks on both sides of its bumpy surface, it inspired me with a starling realization.

I thought about the name given to our team, the Roadmakers. Something about staring down this rugged path made me realize how unsuitable that name really was. We were not the ones making the way to the Father through the gospel. God is. Yes, he was using us to facilitate the plan he has already begun to enact among these people, but how dare we become arrogant enough to think that he needs us to complete the highway from this land to his throne, or that we could do anything of eternal significance apart from his strength.

I thanked God that he is the real Roadmaker, the one who levels mountains to bring people into relationship with him. And I thanked him for using us as the pavement, an agent which would make traffic move a little bit quicker along the narrow road that leads to righteousness.

In Search of Three Circles

The main lesson the Lord forced us to learn on this trip was a total dependence on him, even when our destination and our methods for getting there were uncertain. He drilled us with the meaning of Hebrews 11:1, which says that faith is being "sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

We couldn't have asked for a more efficient way for God to introduce us to the concept than having to ride a rickety old bus through the Chinese countryside. All we knew of our first stop was the hand-drawn landmark on the map given to us during our training, which looked something like an alcove with three stems extending from the top of it, three discs branching off from these three stems. We also knew the name of the city, but being in the right city didn't necessarily mean we'd be at the particular stop our trainers had selected as the start of our mission.

When we had boarded the bus, we clamored over sacks of sugar cane and the other travelers' weathered luggage. I was crammed up against the window, my enormous backpack pressing up against me with as much weight as a small Chinese person. Steve's beast of a pack, considerably heaveier than mine, occupied its own seat. Steve, not particularly small himself, weaved his legs between the mound of bags and produce that had accumulated in the floorboard as the other 10 or so passengers had filed in.

The little bus seemed to be held together by a few resilient screws. Hinges squeaked and bolts chattered as the ancient vehicle puttered along, ascending up the mountainside and winding perilously between the unprotected edge of a cliff on one side and a high concrete embankment on the other. As we snaked our way up the mountain, I noticed that all sorts of vehicles were passing us with ease. Our bus particularly struggled on steep hills, its engine roaring loudly as other buses and cars whizzed by.

Two hours passed as I stared out the window, indulging my eyes with the breathtaking panorama spread before me. Every inch of every hill and valley was manicured with zig-zagged rows of rice paddies and tea trees. I marveled at the farmers' ability to plant so precisely and efficiently. What must have been mundane to them looked like a work of art to my foreign eyes.

I looked back at Steve. Both of us had been praying on and off throughout the ride, and now we wondered whether we were nearing our destination. At the bus station, we had conversed (in his language) with the old man that was now riding shotgun for the driver, and I hoped we had aptly conveyed to him our desired stop.

When we began to see signs of civilization, we started to gather our things. The bus squealed to a halt near a few dilapidated buildings, and the old man and the driver, in his typical brash style, barked unintelligible orders at us. The best we could do was shrug and repeat the name of the city. After scanning the landscape in vain for our unorthodox landmark, we decided to continue. We motioned at the driver to move on, and the bus lurched forward once again.

A few kilometers down the road, we experienced a deja vous. The driver's bulging eyes looked back at us through the large mirror above his head, and he once again yelled the city's name at us, pointing up and down the road as if to say, "This is where you want to go." Not exactly at peace but feeling pressured, Steve and I grabbed our cumbersome packs and squeezed our way out of the crowded bus.

At Steve's insistence, we checked our compasses. The bus had continued west, our intended direction, and we judged that we had gotten off too early. But we didn't base this conclusion entirely on direction. Our landmark was nowhere to be found.

To the south we saw a road that looked like it led into a city.

"The driver must have thought we wanted to go downtown," Steve said. In actuality, we wanted to go to the outskirts, to a place where we could begin our trek into the valleys and foothills where our people group lived.

By this time, I was uncharacteristically stressed out. I wasn't particularly fond of the idea of being lost in a foreign country, especially when there was work to be done. As annoying as it was at the time, Steve's calm assurrance won me over, and I joined him in a prayer asking the Lord to lead us to the right place.

After prayer, we decided to walk in the direction the bus had continued. Slowly, but surely, shack by shack, store by store, we trudged into what began to look like a small town, with motorbikes zooming by, buses crunching over the gravel road, and clusters of people milling about on both sides of the street.

The people gawked at us like we were some new breed of human. To them, we probably were with our white skin, brown hair, and newfangled hiking gear. As I have learned traveling abroad, the best way to deal with this awkward staring is to greet the people looking at you, especially if you can do so in their own language. By acknowledging them and acting as though it's natural for you to be there, you instantly become a person rather than just a strange phenomenon.

A few greetings later, I had them all smiling and whispering among themselves. Steve interrupted my interactions with the crowd.

"What does that look like to you?" he asked.

I followed his gaze upward, and there it was: a giant alcove crowned with three discs at the top. God was faithful, and we were on track.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, that time spent away from someone or something you love helps deepen the affection already shared by the two parties. But I doubt the cliche is really true. Sadly, my leave of absence from the computer keyboard has left my heart full and this blog empty, but I don't think I'm any more fond of writing than when I first began.

Simply put, absence makes you realize just how fond of something you really are. Your fondness doesn't grow; it's accentuated. In the same way that hunger pangs during fasting reveal how much our bodies depend on physical (rather than spiritual) food, my inability to post on this blog has jabbed me in the gut with a yearning to write, a fresh longing for the adventure that comes with a blank page. So what can I learn from this?

I've always loved notebooks and pads. Any shape, size, color; ruled or unruled; recycled paper or new; spiral-bound notebooks to yellow legal pads and anything in between. A tabula raza is to me as the hammer and chisel are to the sculptor or as the unbeaten path is to the avid hiker--pure potential. There are so many things you can do with a clean slate.

I think the main reason I like to write so much is the same reason carpenters like to whittle and painters pick up their brushes: as humans, we love to create. And why shouldn't we? Inherent within each human being, however faint, is the image of God, the same God who created the heavens and the earth with his Word. God has given us his spirit of ingenuity, his desire for newness and adventure, and has encouraged us with ample sources of inspiration, all of which in some way lead us back to him and cause us to give him glory. When we ooh and ahh at the glimpse of a sunset, we give credit to the one who spread the colors across the sky.

Although we bear a slight resemblance to our Father, God is the ultimate creator because he takes things a step further. When we want to start an oil painting, we don't choose a ripped canvas or one that has been scribbled on by a permanent marker. We discount these, believing that their blemishes eliminate any potential they may have had to produce a beautiful work of art.

But God sees things with different eyes. His studio is filled with human hearts, smudged by the stains of sin, waited to be cleaned and transformed into the breathtaking portrait that already exists in the Artist's mind. The way he sees it, the canvasses relegated to the trash bin have the most potential for beauty. Those rescued from deeper sin will love him more. Also, in this act of creativity and restoration he shows himself to be the Supreme Restorer, the One who can conquer all odds anytime he wants.

I love to see the image of God within myself. But I love even more when I realize that I'm but a dull reflection of the glory he embodies. I thank him for the desire for writing, for the creativity which has shown me the image of the Father within me while also making it clear how short I fall of his perfection.

P.S. I hope to get back to writing about China soon. I'm finishing up the rough copy of the journal from the ENTIRE TRIP, so I'll have anecdotes as soon as I'm finished with it.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Two by Two

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. Luke 10:1

In this part of the world, many rural villagers have either never seen a foreigner or can't remember the last time one waltzed through their village. Even those who were aware of the differences between westerners and natives stared bewildered at our white skin and lighter hair color.

But we didn't want to be noticed for our physical appearances. We wanted the light of the kingdom of God to shine on this dark place. We wanted our love, not our looks, to be the characteristic that set us apart from the natives in this land. We longed for them grasp the spiritual differences between us even more so than the physical. In light of this realization, our relationships within the groups of two would become integral tools to our evangelism. After all, Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another.

The apostle Paul said the church is like a body, comprised of many parts, all of which function together to reach the same goal. The brain, the central nervous system that governs all the body's processes, is Christ.

In the American Church, the body has become a massive organism with many denominations as its organs and numerous cell systems within those organs. In comparison, the body in this area is more like an amoeba! In fact, in many villages we would be the only manifestation of the body of Christ the people had ever seen. But a simple body is better than none at all.

The Pairings

-The Bills-

Bill Shorey and Bill Rieger are kindred spirits. Although an ignorant observer may believe that their occupations are polar opposites, nothing could be further from the truth. While Rieger specializes in the things having to do with war, Pastor Shorey leads an army in spiritual warfare every day. Rieger understands on a physical level what Shorey understands spiritually, and because they are both warriors in different arenas, they fit well together for this mission. While Shorey's responsibility was to set the pace for the teams, Rieger kept him in check with regard to security and logistical issues. By pairing them together, God wedded preparation and dependence, the two great lessons this trip forced us to learn.

-The Boys-

Most people at home may be appalled to find out that two college guys were placed on the same team in the middle of this unpredictable land. Frankly, though, these guys were as equipped as anyone for the task at hand. After our deliberation time, the Holy Spirit saw fit to pair them together on Route 1, a route that required a good bit of cycling on day 1.

Unaware that this route would be available, Brad had been training on bikes at the gym for about a month before the trip. Evan has ridden his bike across Georgia at least 3 times that I'm aware of. Also, both of them had been to this country before, so they understood the dynamics of being there as well as anyone else on the team.

Before the mothers reading this throw a fit, the Bills and the Boys shuffled teams on day 2. These guys weren't without pastoral care for too long!

-The Calm-

Cool and calm are two words that adequately describe Charles and Frank, the men selected for Route 3. Charles exuded a quiet peace during our tumultuous times of deliberation. He displayed a great amount of flexibility and usually kept quiet except he had something of substance to say.

In contrast, Frank spoke frequently, but with the patience and practicality of a seasoned physician. His 7-year stint as a missionary automatically thrust him into a leadership role, and he handled it with grace and humility.

In his sovereignty, God placed these two calm, collected guys on the route that would be the most logisitically hectic. With their healthy mixture of support (Charles) and pragmatism (Frank), they would be ready for the challenge.

-Word and Spirit-

I was paired with Steve Coker for Route 4. Steve is an amazing man of God with a big heart and even bigger desire to see God's renown spread throughout the earth. Throughout our preparation time, Steve's military background shone through as he meticulously took account of each detail of the journey. But his concern for detail was overshadowed by his desire to let the Holy Spirit guide our steps. With his intunation to the Spirit and my grounding in the Word, our qualities meshed together for the advancement of God's kingdom.

This group of eight men was Christ's body in Destination Country, unquestionably diverse but unified for the sole purpose of proclaiming liberty for the captives through Christ's name.

An 8-Part Body

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Corinthians 12:27

Before I move on to talk about my specific journey within the mission, I want to give glory to God for an answered prayer and shed some light on the orientation of the team before we split into groups of two.

When the idea of the trip was first presented to me, I was under the impression that the eight Roadmakers would be hiking through the countryside together as one unified troop of God's army. As the planning stages continued, Bill informed us that, at the "M's" insistence, the group of 8 would have to be fragmented into groups of 4.

None of us had a problem with this mandate. With groups of four, we had ample support in each group, and the work could go on as planned. There would be little confusion, and we would be able to share our adventurous experiences with our comrades.

Soon, however, our bubble was burst once again. Bill, after corresponding with our trip's point man who had direct access to our "M" contact on the ground, broke the news that our groups of four would be further divided into groups of two. This way, our contact said, we would be less conspicuous in the villages, and we would be able to bring the gospel to more areas in the short amount of time we had.

Unaware of this issue, we in Athens had been praying for complete unity among the team members. Some of us hardly knew each other and would only meet the Sunday before we left for the airport. We prayed that the enemy would not be able to drive a wedge between us and hinder our work.

We had no idea how salient our prayers would be. When we heard that we would be split into pairs, we knew why God led us to cry out for unity. Each pairing needed a special bond that would include patience, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. This would be a trying mission physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Without unity from the Lord, the enemy could capitalize on the inevitable anxiety of the trip by imparting impatience and disharmony in our relationships.

As he always does, God was grooming us for the trying time ahead. In our preparation and prayer times, we solidified our status as an 8-part body of Christ in a part of the world where Christ's hands and feet have yet to reach and walk among the people. We had no clue how we would be paired, but the Lord, as always, had it figured out.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The First of Many Sunrises-Day 1

We woke to the sound of a rooster crowing, a shrill cacophony piercing the young morning. It was 5:45 a.m., time to begin our mission. My partner and I joined together for a quick prayer before escaping the four-walled concrete cell of a room that had served as our home for the night. We asked God to be with us and to guide our steps, a simple petition which would become one of our mottos before the trip was over.

We emerged from the guest house under a cloak of darkness. The city streets, bustling with business only 8 hours before, were now eerily quiet. I noted the palpable silence, how an area teeming with activity yesterday had utterly shut down during the night.

As we marched towards the bus station, I started to grasp the implications of this trip. What could it really mean for this people group? Could we (by God's grace) be the ones to plant the initial church this land? Excitement welled up within me; I had never felt so close to apostleship.

Steve, my partner, interrupted my musings with a question.

"Hey," he said, "What's that song you played as we worshipped the other morning?"

In our last worship service together during the planning period, there was an acoustic guitar present at the meeting place. I had played four or five songs while leading worship, so I wasn't sure exactly which song he was talking about.

Noting my confused look, he said, "You know, its something about the universe and God's majesty." He promptly began humming what he remembered of it.

"Oh," I said, "You mean 'God of Wonders'," I said. I obliged him by softly singing the first verse. To the rhythm of our marching, with a song that would become our theme, we broke the still morning air with strains of "Holy, Holy!" Passers-by stared at us with bewildered gazes. We saw smiles begin to creep onto their faces. We, as foreigners, had shaken up their monotony, bringing a tinge of joy at the outset of a day that would soon be steeped in daily duties.

I thought about the concept of brightening their day with our presence, how they stared almost in awe of us, struggling to understand how we could possibly desire to visit their little corner of the earth. I thought about how much we stand out against the crowd, how our white skin and elevated height make us easy to pick out in a group. I prayed that we would not only be noticed for our difference in appearance, but that as ambassadors for the kingdom of God, they would notice that we were banner-bearers for a new kingdom that had come among them.

We had gotten a late start, so we didn't make the 7:00 bus. I was upset because I thought it irresponsible of us to miss the first bus of the entire journey, but Steve, ever-willing to trust the Lord, calmed me down. Soon, we found the bus station and I used my limited language skills to purchase 2 tickets. A few minutes later, these Roadmakers were headed west.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Have your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
Ephesians 6:15

When I used to play baseball, I always got nervous before the first pitch. During those few tense pre-game moments in the locker room, I wondered if I had what it takes. Was my training rigorous enough, or was I ill-prepared to accomplish the task at hand?

Soon, all the preliminary activities were over and these thoughts dissipated. After the triumphant finale of the national anthem, the home team hit the field and the umpire gave the "ready" signal to the starting pitcher. It was gametime.

My coach used to say there are two responses to pressure: performance and failure. You can either let the pressure get to your head, extinguishing any chance you had at success, or you can relax, relying on your physical and mental preparation to execute the gameplan.

In life, I've found that anxiety is inevitable. Anyone who claims never to have experienced it is an emotionless robot who will later face problems when faced with situations in which a healthy fear is necessary for survival. Fear is healthy when it influences us to complete an action that benefits us. But unhealthy fear is a poisonous compound formed by the fusion of our excessive desire to please others and our tendency to dwell on the uncertainty of the outcome of a situation rather than our preparation for it.

Most of the time on the baseball diamond, when my steel cleat scraped the red clay within the chalk rectangle of the batter's box, unhealthy fear was left on the outside. Why? Because I was a macho guy who didn't worry about failure? No, but after hours of batting practice, tee drills, soft toss, and swing analysis, I was literally prepared for anything the pitcher could throw at me.

In the heat of the battle, there is no time for preparation or rehearsal, only reaction. A warrior trying to learn how to use his sword in the midst of the fight is sure to get struck down. If he is prepared, however, the burden of performance is lightened. Failure then is not a result of his irresponsibility. He can rest because he's given it his best shot.

We as the "Roadmakers" experienced a similar situation spiritually on our journey. Our mission, with all its intricacies, required intense physical and spiritual preparation. To us, the journey began not when our plane touched down on the tarmac in our destination country, but when we first received the call to leave our homes and head to a faraway land to proclaim the mystery of Christ.

Until our trip to the airport, the team had been spread all across Georgia, or as Bill put it, "scattered to the four corners of the earth." But individually and corporately, we began to pray for the trip, later finding out that the overarching themes of all our prayers were unity and dependence on God.

When we touched down in our first country, we participated in three solid days of training and planning. The routes had to be mapped out in detail. Every foreseeable situation was accounted for. Thanks to our army guys, we had "briefbacks," a session in which each team explained its itinerary in detail to the rest of the team. Although we would be separated for two days, the mission required that each team be familiar with the schedule of the others.

Our prayers and our "Riegerous" (those who went on the trip will understand) physical, spiritual, and logistical preparation were our extra cuts in the batting cage. Once our beautiful feet hit the ground in our destination country, we were ready for the enemy's curveballs. Believe me, there were some nasty ones to come...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Kerak Castle

Talk about walls. Try getting through this one at Kerak, a Crusader castle in Jordan.

Outside the Walls

Sign broken, come inside for message.

Recently, while driving past a local church, I read the preceding message on their sign. "Hmm, clever," I thought. But as I kept driving and thinking, I began to question their method of outreach to the community.

Are people really going to come in just because the church boasts a sign with a witty saying? With cars whizzing by at an average of about 60mph, the sign has a maximum of about ten seconds to capture the drivers' attention and thought. In this short window of opportunity, is this the impression we really want to leave? That the saving message of the gospel must be heard inside the walls of the church?

Granted, there is no harm in a little invitation to the service, but I fear that the mentality exhibited on the sign has become an ideology within the body today. Many times, when we say "outreach" or "evangelism," what we really mean is bringing someone into the sanctuary, plopping them on a pew next to us, and pummeling them with music, teaching, prayer, and exposing them to all the "feel-good" amenities that our churches offer today.

I don't know how many of us realize this, but most of the people being won to Christ throughout the world aren't responding to the gospel while listening to a church congregation mumble a rendition of the 1st, 3rd, 5th verses of "Just as I am" toward the end of the service. No, people are being saved in the rainforests and the deserts, in the mountains and in the valleys, in the frozen tundra and in tropical regions, any many other places God is moving throughout the four corners of the earth. God is making straight paths in the wilderness, raining down his love on barren lands, sowing seed for a great harvest.

Along with all this, he is preparing the way for his people to move outside the walls of our church buildings that have confined us for much too long. He is calling us to realize how we have misunderstood the task of the body of Christ. In the New Testament, the church is the body of Christ, a house of living stones being built into a glorious temple with Christ as its cornerstone (see 1 Peter 2). It is comprised of believers who spur one another on with the common goal of the kingdom's advancement.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that all unbelievers should be shut out of the church. Nor am I saying that we should not proclaim the gospel within the confines of our church buildings. But I am suggesting that the primary function of the church is to edify Christians and to prepare them for ministry, much of which should take place outside its walls. The central idea has always been to win souls to Christ as we go and after their conversion, to bring them into the church for discipleship.

Paul didn't wait idly for the world to come to him. He went out to preach the freedom of the gospel and to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19). During the time of the early church, God didn't "add to their number daily" so that unbelievers would be exposed to the gospel (see Acts). Those being added were the fruits of the apostles' faithful preaching outside the church. When they went out, God brought the harvest in!

For the sake of Jesus' name, we must realize that God's work does not stop at the doors to the sanctuary. Contrary to the way we've lived for so long, we must understand that going outside beginning of ministry. Only then will our joyous lives--not our signs--be the advertisements that draw people not into a building, but into an adventurous and loving relationship with their Creator.