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.