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.