Stories of “God Arriving” in Thailand

Issue Group 22

From “almost killed” … to seeing hope in a new-born baby … to 48 Christians from places of conflict dancing to “If I Had a Hammer”… (what kind of  Forum on World Evangelization was this?) …

We must not attach God’s name carelessly to our involvements, as if we see what God sees.  Yet certain moments cry out for the recognition of grace.  If they are, indeed, signs of God’s workings, we must not name them too quickly, as if we know what is coming, where we will be taken, and whether we will be willing…

Photo: “Group 22,” who birthed the Global Reconciliation Network. Pattaya, Thailand, Oct. 4, 2004.

Preparing to Go:  “God Will Arrive”
Some friends gathered at church September 23, two nights before I left for Thailand, to pray.  One said:  “Chris, I have an image of God saying, ‘I will arrive.’”  Driving to the airport the next day, I told Donna, “I think I’m going into a new beginning of some kind.”  Little could I imagine how these images would play out—God arriving, a new beginning.

Day 1:  “What Am I Getting Into Here?”
Meeting in a hotel complex next to the ocean in Pattaya, among 1,500 people from nearly 130 countries, our Issue Group on Reconciliation brought together 48 Christian leaders from 6 continents and 25 countries.

We began by telling our stories of pain and hope from the world’s most difficult and broken places.  Two people in my small group (from Burundi and Sudan) told “when I was almost killed” stories; another about being arrested (Indonesia); another about being cast out by his people for engaging the other side (Northern Ireland). “What am I getting into,” I wondered with a chuckle, “hanging out with this group?”

A Sign of HopePhoto: A Sign of Hope … From Places of Pain, Singing Praise to God: Grace Morillo of Colombia, kidnapped by guerillas for 60 days … James Odong of Uganda, abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army as a boy … Bishara Awad of Bethlehem, Palestinian Christian … David Porter of Northern Ireland, who talks to terrorists.

Day 3:  A Bigger Vision Than We Imagined
On day two and the next, we discussed a major “Paper on Reconciliation and Mission” drafted by the leadership team.  Remarkably, after several hours and some sharp debate, it seemed we agreed this was a powerful document—“the makings of a treasure for the Church,” as one participant said.

With eloquence and gravitas, moderator Sam Barkat called for people to stand if they wished to affirm these convictions about God’s mission of reconciliation.  Everybody came to their feet.

Sam drew us into a circle, asked us to grasp hands, and called upon three people to pray.  One was Father Luke Veronis, our only Orthodox Church member, the only Orthodox Christian at the 2004 Forum.

Something happened at that moving moment that I only discovered the next day, when I ran into Stefan Stankovic, a young Pentecostal pastor from Serbia.

“Yesterday, when we prayed in that circle, it was a very significant moment for me.”  In Serbia, Stefan said, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians are bitterly divided.  “When the Orthodox father prayed, it was the first time I have ever heard an Orthodox priest bless something evangelicals are doing.”  He paused, then continued.  “And because our hands were clasped in that circle, mine through others to him, it was the first time I have ever felt blessed by an Orthodox priest.”

At our closing celebration on Day 7, guess what two brothers in Christ chose to sit next to each other?  Throughout the week, it seemed grace was pressing upon us, stretching our vision of reconciliation.

Day 4:  A Birth, and a Bombing
Emmanuel Ndikumana’s wife was due to give birth any day in Burundi, but she and their church exhorted Emmanuel to come to Thailand (his was one of the “I almost got killed” stories).   On Day 4, he received joyous news of a new baby girl.

After the day’s sessions, I walked back to the hotel with Emmanuel and Celestin Musekura of Rwanda.  We asked Emmanuel if he had decided on the baby’s name.  He thought, then said, “Because of what God is doing in the midst of our group this week, we will name her Shalom.”  The next day he announced this to great applause.  As our group pledged to pursue “shalom” in our places of life—the biblical vision of justice, righteousness, and peace—Shalom Ndikumana would be growing deeper into Christ with us.

But great pain was never far from the room.  The next day, Ngul Pau, a Baptist pastor from northeast India, received word that a bombing had killed 60 people near his city.  Only a few minutes before his wife was nearby, barely escaping.

Day 6:  The Sound of Reconciliation
On Day 1 I had tried, and failed, to work a song from a CD called “Simunye” into my opening message to the group.  The music beautifully blends a Soweto (South Africa) gospel choir singing a political chant for peace, and an Oxford (England) chorale group’s Renaissance hymn.  “Oh, well,” I thought.  “The sound of reconciliation wasn’t meant to be.”

DancingOn Day 6 came our week’s closing celebration:  joyous, foot-stomping singing and clapping, testimonies of breakthroughs and thanks, fervent prayer, and a ritual of forgiveness.  At one point, Ken Gnanakan of India grabbed a guitar and led us in “If I Had a Hammer” (adding the line “… I’d hammer out reconciliation all over this world!).  Julia Duany of Sudan (let that sink in—Sudan) jumped up, pulling a couple other African women to dance with her.  As Julia cried out a sharp “Ee! Ee!” of joy, one of the dear African sisters (who will go unnamed) danced reluctantly at first, then with increasing enthusiasm, to this exuberant song—which does not, however, mention Jee-sus.  “Dear Sister,” I think, felt like she enjoyed herself too much.  After the song, running to her seat, she giggled and cried out, “When I get back to my church, I will have to confess!”

Later, it came to me:  we didn’t need recorded music to make “the sound of reconciliation.”  Our week’s journey literally erupted that sound from our group that last night, with no planning, in simple, spontaneous joy and laughter with one another, people living amidst the world’s worst conflicts.  I received it as the sound of the coming kingdom, our hope in signs of God’s triumph, breaking into our midst.

On a wall at the front of the room was the Covenant we had unanimously adopted that morning, telling what had become “our story”:  coming to Thailand as strangers and leaving as committed companions, arriving at shared convictions about reconciliation in today’s world, binding to each other in prayer and future work, even giving birth to a “Global Reconciliation Network.”

One by one, we walked up and signed our Covenant, declaring that Thailand was not the end of a story, but only the beginning.

Day 7:  An Unlikely Final “Presentation”
Every group was to give a final report to the entire Forum, 31 5-minute presentations over a 3 hour span.  What should we say amidst too much triumphalism and certainty, too many “10 year game plans” for “winning the world for Christ”?  What could possibly capture our group’s journey and convictions?  In just five minutes?

In the middle of the night, I had an inspiration (one of several during the week).  I turned on the light and wrote down words that came to me:  Action.  Sign.  Symbol of our story and call.   I sketched a picture of what I saw on the stage.  The next morning I shared the vision with the group, who embraced it, and we began to prepare.

On Day 7, after 21 reports, our turn came.  Fourteen of us, including me, walked onto the stage, carrying basins, towels, and pitchers of water, and took chairs in an arc, sitting in groups representing deep divisions.  As Sam Barkat and Jeanette Yep introduced each group, they stood:  Hutu and Tutsi from Rwanda.  Catholic priest in collar, Protestant minister in her Salvation Army uniform, and Orthodox priest in his long black robe.  Israeli Messianic Jew from Jerusalem and Palestinian Christian from Nazareth.  Asian-American, African-American, and white American (me).  Male, and female.  As each group was announced, the audience of 1,500 broke into greater applause, as if yearning for hope, for healing.

Foot WashingThen, as our narrators told of what happened in our group that week, each cluster knelt in prayer, and washed each other’s feet. “This is a foot washing, not a performance,” we had told each other.  Each group had prayed, had prepared spiritually, had talked about what we were about to do for one another.

After we finished, we stood and grasped hands as the Forum heard of our Covenant to bind together in future mission.

I walked off the stage focused, not thinking about the audience.  I did hear thunderous applause.  Beatrice Mwaka, a Ugandan from Coventry Cathedral in England, grabbed me from behind.  She said, “Chris, look.  They’re all standing.”  I looked out on the crowd of Christian believers from across the world, on their feet, a standing ovation.

Coming off the stage, we fell into each others’ arms with many tears.  Beatrice appeared before me, a jar of anointing oil in her hands, and began to rub oil over my hair, my hands, “I anoint you Chris, I anoint you as a messenger of reconciliation.  God, make these hands of reconciliation.”

People said that when the footwashing started, many people had rushed to the stage for a picture.  Others told of people around them beginning to weep.   I don’t know what would have happened if the Forum leadership had called for an interruption to the program, a time of silence, confession, prayer.  Something remarkable, I’m sure.  Yet I want to believe—I do believe—that before our eyes, God issued an invitation to Christians from 130 nations into what the Holy Spirit is doing in this twenty-first century, and a sign of this is now burned into memories across the world:  drawing us, across the boundaries that fragment the world and the Church, to wash one another’s feet.

The Beach, New Birth, and a Bracelet
In the fall of 1998, nine months after Spencer died, I ran into an old friend.  I told him about the pain of Donna and I leaving Mississippi, walking into the unknown from the greatest joys on earth, experienced over 17 years of common mission and holy friendships in our West Jackson neighborhood.
After listening, after showing he understood, my friend said this:  “Chris, the future will be even better.”  Even better.

How could that be?  How could we ever taste what we tasted in Jackson, living each day with such a profound sense of “calledness,” sharing pains and joys?  Even better.  How could my friend fix his mouth to say that?  Yet I held onto my friend’s words, and I have continued holding, receiving them as a declaration of hope in God.

I thought of my friend’s words when, before departing Pattaya, I went down to the nearby beach.  I thought of Emmanuel’s daughter Shalom, the birth of a child, the hope of God constantly bringing new life.

I thought of what I sensed from God about the remarkable people I had journeyed with: “Chris, I’ve given you 50 new friends across the world, in all places of conflict.  Now go, and build these friendships.”  Our Global Reconciliation Network, said Nabil of Nazareth, was “the birth of a family.”

I also thought of my deep sense of God’s presence throughout the week, of being “spoken to” in extraordinary ways, of seeing the leadership team clicking on all cylinders in camaraderie, of affirming gifts I’d been given that brought together both Mississippi and Duke.  There on the beach, I received the week as yet another birth, the new birth of my call to the ministry of reconciliation, in a way I never could have anticipated.  New life arising from these years of pain and loss, of leaving Mississippi, of walking into the unknown and now seeing steps that had led me to this stretch of sand.

In Bangkok, before returning home, I bought a bracelet.  I’ve never worn one before (and my 13-year old son acknowledges “it’s cool Dad”).  I wanted a sign, a constant reminder, of “God arriving” in Thailand, giving new life to my call, and a taste of Even better.

Back Home, Preaching Side by Side … Again
Last Sunday, at our church here in Durham, Celestin Musekura of Rwanda visited.  Celestin and I have been on this journey for two years, since we were asked to convene the Thailand group.  We preached two services, telling the story of what we experienced in Pattaya.  It was fun, it was exhilarating, it brought great joy.  There I was, 7 years after not speaking with Spencer by my side, as we did so many times, now standing side by side with an African to preach the message of reconciliation.

Before the service started, Celestin said, “So after I speak, I sit down and you’ll come up from your seat to speak, right?”  I smiled.  “That’s not the way we do it, brother,” I said with a smile.  “The best way is to stand side by side the whole time.  It’s quite effective . . . Spencer and I learned that.”

I am struck with awe these days, sensing God willing something into existence, something we should not be quick to name or limit, not sure what to make of it all, so happy to be part of it.

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