28 December 2007

a different style Christmas season

After spending more than a month cumulatively in the country of Thailand, it's still hard to wrap my mind around understanding this culture. We found that it's been an easier adjustment than India but this culture seems more reserved, wanting to please so therefore they mask issues to bring comfort to the farangs (foreigners/westerners) or to avoid confrontation. Emotions seem suppressed in this culture which can cause major problems if they build up. We've been warned that if you see 2 Thais yelling at each other, get away because they have lost it and could do something pretty drastic.

After our short visit to Cambodia, we returned to the progressive, international city of Bangkok to pick up Richmond who joined us for most of December. I'm not sure if Richmond realized what he was getting himself into by joining the Deifell sisters in this unique adventure but he fared well with the idiosyncrasies of our travel system & communication. He said that my personality hasn't changed too much but he did notice a few things: my budget-consciousness has driven many of my decisions which can be limiting (am I really trusting in God's provisions?), my spiritual walk has been nurtured which is expected when being introduced to so many incredible members of this family of faith, and I'm learning how to really be, something I'm not so good at in my WNC world of work, school, etc.

We've been busy traveling all over southern Thailand for the last 3+ weeks but I want to keep this post from developing into a novel so I'll try to focus on some highlights. We have been so blessed by our Bangkok hosts (Amy, Kip, Elise-2, & Selah-3+months Baggett... Amy is the sister to Ruth Ann Somerville) who have allowed us to keep this as a hub for our SE Asia travels... even when they are in the States for Christmas.

Our first stop south was in Lam Thap, a village outside of Krabi where we were hosted by Radt Yaithong, her wonderful family, & short-term missionary, Trevor Lee (from LA). This YWAM ministry reaches many rural Thais through prayer ministry, English lessons, house-church, and relational ministries. We felt the Spirit moving in some incredible ways, especially when praying with some of Radt's neighbors.

After a short trip out to the extreme tourist destination of the Phi Phi Islands with Trevor, we traveled up the coast to Khao Lak to visit with Step Ahead, another YWAM affiliated ministry. Khao Lak survived the hardest hit of the Tsunami 3 years ago, with over 4,000 casualties. This ministry facilitate some effective empowerment projects including English classes, a mushroom project, orchid project, 4 preschools, & possibly a eco-tourism project in the near future. We prayed thanksgiving for this incredible staff (Benz, Bree, etc.) and appreciated our amazing host, Paul McKnight. A big highlight was participating in the Step Ahead Christmas party... helping us with the challenge of getting into the season in the midst of a tropical climate & Buddhist culture.

For my 34 birthday (I still can't believe it!) we checked out the Similan Islands... beautiful, quieter (than Phi Phi) islands although still a tourist trap (especially with expense)... something we're not too keen on. But that experience prepared us to fully appreciate our last Thai beach experience off the coast of the Satun province. We had an amazing time with a family in this SW province. Their ministry is relational involving English classes & After-school, fishing projects, & even constructions projects. They put us to work teaching English classes & even Richmond got conned into teaching during his 'vacation' by leading an art lesson. This family is gifted with humor along side Biblical perspectives and an incredible amount of patience. They brought us out to Koh Bulon Don, an island not touched by tourism that houses a community of 60 families. This is the type of experience we'd been praying for... unique, quiet, authentic, and community.

We spent a couple days (including 1/2 of Christmas day) with Paul McKnight's parents in Hat Yai, Barry & Rowena. They have years & years of experience as missionaries in Thailand, most recently affiliated with World Outreach, so their stories were fascinating. They also have huge hearts and, Rowena especially, nurtured us just as our mother would... an answer to prayer to be able to spend this special celebration with such extraordinary people. Part of the celebration involved a Christmas Fair put on by their church where hundreds of people showed up for games (led by some Kiwi missionaries), performances, food, lantern-lighting, and telling the real reason for this holiday. We found out that most Thai think that Christmas is the western New Year celebration, therefore Richmond & I heard "O Come All Ye Faithful" at the airport this morning (28th) while we were saying our goodbyes.

We give thanks & praise for all these incredible missionaries that God opened the door to. We originally thought our ministry contacts in the south were lacking but it's not about quantity, it's about quality. We're now headed north into Laos and again our ministry contacts seem lacking but we'll see what God does. Keep us in your prayers for this popular travel time of year, meeting the people God wants us to meet, strength & rejuvenation at our 1/2 way mark, and for the 3 moles I just got removed to be checked for skin cancer... a reminder of my heavenly citizenship.

23 December 2007

Merry Christmas

First, I apologize that I haven't been able to work on an update in the last few weeks. We have been busy visiting incredible ministries & people outside of Krabi, up to Khao Lak, & to the southwest in Satun. We have been involved in prayer ministry, English classes, recreation with kids, and Christmas outreaches which have all shifted our perspectives as we try to wrap our heads around the Thai culture.

We are now in Hat Yai visiting with the parents of a new, ministry friend/brother. It's wonderful to be in a home with some of our faith family during this precious season. We will be catching a train (18 hours) tomorrow afternoon back up to Bangkok... interesting way to spend Christmas night.

It has been a very unique Christmas season not just because of the Buddhist/Muslim culture that surrounds us or the tropical weather & beautiful scenery but because we are not caught up in the commercialism of the western world. It brings our focus closer to the real reason for this time of celebration. I'm so incredibly thankful that I can share this celebration with Hope & Richmond.

I hope to get an extensive post with pictures up by the end of the week so check back soon. Have a wonderful Christmas. I hope it's filled with laughter!

05 December 2007

Keep playing...

Dangerous wonder, risky curiosity, wild abandon, daring playfulness, wide-eyed listening, irresponsible passion, happy terror, naive grace... all part of a "childlike faith" and what it means "to recapture the joy [& freedom] of being a child and [applying] it to your relationship with God." Hope & I just finished studying these topics over the last couple months in Michael Yaconelli's book Dangerous Wonder. In many ways, reading this book as a devotional really reinforced & encouraged my perspective on faith, and I'm thankful that I've been able to hang on to this sort of childlikeness. In fact, upon reflection on one of the last discussion questions in the book, "What has God been calling you to do?", I recognized that I have a reoccurring desire to teach & inspire these same principles in other believers.

Funny thing is, my new friend Jesse (a missionary from Nagaland, NE India) asked my other new friend Pheng (a former Buddhist monk in Cambodia for 8 years) how to stay young-looking: Pheng's opinion was to stay single, but my opinion was to keep playing, so you never forget how.

The timing of this study has been interesting in that Asia (like much of Africa) seems to be filled with cultures where "youthfulness" can be looked down upon, seen as inappropriate, and even viewed as a second class. I guess it's not too far from the way many older "responsible" Christians may view young leaders of the faith. For example, another new American friend named Andy, who is a second generation missionary to Japan, shared that one of the biggest crises in the Japanese church today is the lack of young leaders because their "inexperience" is looked down on. Likewise, Brian Maher shared with us some similar examples in the Cambodian church, but I am inspired by his motivation & call to empower the Khmer youth.

So, about a week and a half ago, we traveled from the coast of Cambodia (Sihanoukville) into the Mekong Delta and arrived in Cambodia's capital (Phnom Penh) just in time for the Water Festival -- an annual cultural festival which brings over a million people from the countryside into the city. We checked it out briefly, got our fill, and then chose to avoid it for the rest of the weekend due to the crowds.

While in Phnom Penh, we visited with Hayden Sewall and Lisa & Dave Everitt of Innerchange Ministries, Andrew Thomas of The Bible League, Pastor Meng Aun Hour & his wife Rady of Followers of Jesus Church & Orphan Voice, International Christian Fellowship, Kiri Nguon through the International Sports Coalition, Brian Maher & Todd Smith of the Youth Commission of Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia, and Christina Valenti of two International Youth programs, Cross-culture & Solar. Aside from visiting with all these people, we also tried to grasp a bit of Cambodia's tragic history by visiting the Killing Fields & the Tuol Sleng genocide museum -- both landmarks of the Khmer Rouge... a lot to fit into one week.

Lisa Everitt is a vivacious woman with a refreshing sense of humor, and she helped us get oriented and connected to youth ministries around Phnom Penh. Her husband Dave shared from his heart one evening speaking to our hearts and encouraging us. With over 12 years of ministry experience in Cambodia, Lisa & Dave have incredible insight.

We had met Pastor Meng at the sports ministry conference in Thailand, and he invited us to join a group of about 20 Christian leaders on a short trip up to Kratie (NE Cambodia) for a marriage conference led by Andy (the American missionary in Japan mentioned above). We were only with the group for just over 24 hours, but we were blessed by Andy's teachings & perspectives, by learning more about the culture of Cambodian marriage & youth, and by meeting Vatong with World Hope International & Veasna of EFC/Youth Commission in Ratanakiri (far NE Cambodia). After our return to Phnom Penh the next day, Pastor Meng's wife Rady graciously introduced us to the Followers of Jesus School which provides a 1st through 4th-grade education for youth from the streets of southwest Phnom Penh... most of whom would otherwise not get an education because of the corrupted, bribe-fed expense in Cambodian public schools.

Later, we spent an evening hearing Kiri's incredible story: escaping the Khmer Rouge by floating down the river, playing professional soccer for Vietnam, returning to Cambodia just to escape again through mine fields, coming to faith by independently reading the Bible in a Thailand refugee camp, traveling to America, and then returning to Cambodia several months ago to pursue sports ministry through coaching. Amazing!

One morning, we caught a motorcycle taxi to the north side of Phnom Penh to have breakfast with Brian Maher. Both Lisa and our new friend Veasna encouraged us to meet with Brian, and we're so thankful for the opportunity. Brian has spent the last 13 years in Cambodia working with Khmer youth... empowering & mentoring them. I resonated with his approach and his passions, especially regarding the Diamond Project. After breakfast, we went back to the Youth Commission office with him to meet the visionary of the Diamond Project, New Zealander Todd Smith, as well as some of the empowered youth who came through the Diamond Project & currently serve on staff. The whole morning was a huge blessing... In fact, it's not surprising (anymore) to discover that we have a mutual friend in the States -- a wonderful friend who grew up in his former youth group in CT and later attended Montreat College: Annie Helstein. What a small and beautiful world!

The web continues to grow... as our new friend Andrew Thomas became a surrogate brother during our stay in Cambodia -- checking in with us periodically and then connecting us with Pastor Vuthy of the Bethel Church. In our short trip to Siem Reap, we were blessed to be able to stay with Pastor Vuthy, his family, & his 'apprentice' Pheng Sopheak (the former monk mentioned above). Our brief visit also included assistant-teaching some English classes with 2 Bethel Church staff & 2 missionaries from NE India (Jesse & Akom) and spending each evening hearing Pastor Vuthy & Pheng's stories... And of course we fulfilled the usual tourist requirement by checking out the incredible ancient temples & ruins of Angkor Wat.

Overall, our experience in Cambodia amazed me but, like many other places along this big "introductory" trip, it made me want to come back to spend more time. Today, we're leaving Bangkok and heading south towards Malaysia. We're also visiting a couple of YWAM ministries in the beginning and then... only God knows!