What’s in a name

Several years ago I traveled to China on behalf of the Bible League, a ministry I worked for at the time. The trip was an opportunity for 34 Western Christians to:

  1. become familiar with the Bible League’s ministry,
  2. enlarge our understanding of the worldwide Church, and
  3. provide Chinese Christians with Chinese Bibles, which are in short supply throughout China.

In addition, I served as a reporter on the trip, taking notes and writing reports that could be shared with donors, so they could see both the need for and the results of their financial support.

It was a wonderful trip. When I read my trip report even now, years later, I laugh and cry and feel the weight of the suitcases all over again.

Training

A powerful part of this trip was the 36-hour train ride from Beijing to Hong Kong. Riding the rails for 36 hours gives you plenty of time to socialize with fellow passengers, and we took advantage of the opportunity to communicate as best we could. I had a Chinese-English translator book that helped us carry on conversations consisting of basic facts like, “I have one brother” and “I live in Guangzhou.” It was interesting to communicate without words, to simply point at characters in order to convey meaning.

We did have one Chinese-speaking man in our group (one of the tour leaders). I’m sure he was overwhelmed with our team’s various requests for translation help, but he was very gracious throughout. You could see his compassion and earnestness in all his interactions. Most of the conversations he was having were about the Bible, and Jesus, and Buddha, and the meaning of life. I listened in on one exchange with a young woman who had received a Chinese New Testament from someone in the group. He pointed out a number of significant verses, and she read them thoughtfully and asked some penetrating questions: “How do you worship this God?” “How do you pray, and when?” I don’t know if she made any religious decisions during that train ride, but I did notice she was still reading that New Testament a long while later.

I heard later that one of the conversations our translator had was with a man who did then decide to become a Christian. It is common practice in China for a new convert to choose a new, Christian name to signify his new life. The translator asked this new convert what Christian name he might choose. The man wasn’t sure. He mentioned he would be the first Christian in his family and in his village. So the translator suggested Peter as his Christian name, Peter being one of Christ’s first followers and “the Rock” of the Christian church. The man agreed, and he was christened Peter. It was only then that we learned he had a very common surname in China: Pan. So somewhere in China today is a church leader named Peter Pan!

Faith

I consider it an honor to be in the same Christian family as people like Peter Pan. If you read last week’s blog, you know I’ve spent the week wondering what small things I can do to “take it up a notch” in terms of my faith. But for Peter Pan, his very decision to become a Christian is an act of faith braver than anything I’ll ever do. He likely suffered ridicule, beatings, fines, job loss, and/or discrimination when he returned home and revealed his new faith. Maybe he was run out of town. Maybe he was killed. Maybe he ended up renouncing his faith. I don’t know. But I admire him for being willing to risk it all for a God he met on a train, in the pages of a Book given to him by a stranger who became a brother.

Perhaps Peter is the perfect name for this new Christian. After all, Peter is the disciple who impulsively braved the waves and walked on water (Matthew 14:22ff), who drew a sword to defend his Lord (John 18:10), who recognized early that Jesus was worth following (John 6:68). Peter is a model of the kind of “notched-up” faith I want for his namesake, Peter Pan. And for myself.

But he’s also a model of the kind of failing faith I’m more often guilty of. The faith that got Peter out of the boat quickly melted when he saw the waves. And perhaps it was fear rather than faith that prompted him to draw his sword. And though he pledged Jesus his loyalty, Peter is just as famous for his three denials when the going got tough. Peter’s faith story is a mixture of glory and failure.

Just like mine.

In the end, it’s not the size or intensity of my faith that matters, but the One in whom I place it. And I thank God for that.

“Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” Psalm 115:1

 

Taking it up a notch

journeyI was convicted today.

This morning’s sermon by Pastor Jason Perry was called “Caleb: Faith for a Lifetime.” Pastor Perry led us through a chapter from the book of Joshua in which Caleb, an 85-year-old man by this time, is recounting his experiences of taking God at His word. Caleb and Joshua were 2 of 12 scouts the Israelites sent into Canaan after God promised Israel this land was for them. Ten of the scouts brought back reports of giant people and large armies inhabiting the land. Joshua and Caleb acknowledged the challenge but were confident in their God. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it,” was Caleb’s report (Numbers 13:30, NIV).

Well, Joshua and Caleb were outnumbered, and the Israelites were punished for their lack of faith. They were banished to the desert for 40 years of wandering—until that whole generation of the doubtful died off. Their children would enter the promised land that they themselves had been afraid to accept.

85 years old and still ready for battle

Joshua and Caleb would be the only members of their generation to step foot on Canaanite soil. Because of their faith. In fact, listen to Caleb talking to the younger generation of Israelites:

“So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.” (Joshua 14:10–12, NIV)

Do you love that? Caleb’s faith had only grown stronger during 40 years of desert waiting! He was just as confident, just as whole-hearted, just as eager to slay giants and serve God as he had ever been. Wow.

Advice for all ages

Pastor Perry’s advice to the young people of our congregation was to make God a habit now, by developing a discipline of talking and listening to Him every day through prayer and Bible reading.

His advice to the “seasoned saints” was to finish well, to never accept retirement, to find new ways to serve, to allow age to take a physical toll but never a spiritual toll.

For people in my age group—between youth and retirement—he suggested, “Take it up a notch.”

Take it up a notch?

What does that mean? For me it means I want to be more strategic about how I spend my time. I can’t pack any more into my days—I’m already overwhelmed! But “overwhelmed” is no way to go through life. So taking it up a notch means investing time in the right things.

  • It means I’ll be more careful about the clients I accept, the projects I agree to, the committees I join.
  • It means I’ll eliminate some of the blogs and e-newsletters I subscribe to, so I’ll still have time and energy to read the Bible and really think about what it says.
  • It means I won’t neglect rest, and healthy meals, and outdoor activities—because I want to be able to say when I’m 85, “I’m just as strong, just as vigorous to go out to battle, as I was 40 years ago!”

Will I keep blogging? Tweeting? Facebooking? LinkingIn? I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to discern yet whether the words I post in cyberspace ever result in the world being a better place. Am I strengthening anyone’s faith? Or my own? Sometimes you don’t know until years down the road.

Please share

I would appreciate any comments on this subject. What are the rest of you doing to make sure you spend time on only the “right” things? What kinds of disciplines have you set up? And how did you determine what is right? Did you ever eliminate something you thought was not worthwhile, and then wish later you had kept it?

If you were challenged to take your faith up a notch, what would that mean for you?

 

Cambodia remains

donor report
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

In a cardboard box in my basement, wrapped in a small plastic bag, is a human bone. A fragment. It shocks me when I see it, even though I am the one who put it there.

I tucked it away, out of sight, not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember it. I didn’t want it to lose its power. For a while, I had kept it on my desk, next to my Mac. Doing so seemed somewhat disrespectful, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead, for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the shock wore off. So I put the fragment away.

Every once in a while I’ll hear a news story about Cambodia, or a mention of the Khmer Rouge, or a reference to “The Killing Fields,” and I’ll remember my trip to Cambodia more than 10 years ago. I’ll think about the plastic-wrapped bone in my basement, and my eyes will well up again.

Trying to understand

It was a powerful trip, full of life and death, hope and despair. During the weeks before leaving, whenever I would tell people I was going to Cambodia, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of “Cambodia? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not really safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it, “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the experience by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped within the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

To this day, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects. The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals and businessmen of Cambodian society; the remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery; cities were bombed; and a lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1985, and Cambodia remains scarred and crippled today. There has been very little development in the past 20 years. Streets are unpaved and rutted, buildings are worn, and the people seem worn as well.

Smelling the fear

Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo of each body before burying it in a plot next to the building. Those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making each room a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

In a separate building are displayed some of the torture devices the Khmer Rouge used. The perverted creativity these people used to kill their victims is almost incomprehensible. Seeing the different tools and machines they invented, you sense that these killings were sport to them.

I kept trying to understand this place, kept trying to wrap my mind around the reasons people would do this to other people. And I couldn’t. Whatever political or ideological motivations Pol Pot had, they are simply inadequate to explain why. As I looked at the photos, read the history, smelled the fear and death in the air, I kept coming back to the question, How could this happen? No answer seemed satisfactory.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

Tuol Sleng was a place where many of the city people—educated business or government people—were killed. After lunch we drove out to one of the killing fields where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. Again, the site is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a number of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each of these large pits was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

That’s where I found the bone that is now in my basement. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that had decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had known so little about these atrocities beforehand made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets, victims of mines that still dot the countryside. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and older generations have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in our Cambodian office. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother—killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to interrupt our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of a group of tourists who were mainly oblivious to her country’s plight.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang a song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.
(Gaither)

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth the living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

And that glistening hope is what we are working to share throughout Cambodia. Throughout the world.

Is there any greater calling than that?