storing up treasures: saying goodbye to a place I love

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I had to say goodbye this week, and it was so much harder than I expected. Because when you really, truly leave a place, you’re not just saying goodbye to people and things (if that weren’t enough), but you’re saying goodbye to an era, to the way those people and things made you feel, to life as you knew it.

I can’t exactly explain what my five years in Bangkok have meant to me. People try to tell me it was a “great experience,” and they call it a “wonderful opportunity” I was blessed to have. But to me, it was so much more than that. To me, Thailand wasn’t just a great experience, Thailand was real life. And to me, Thailand wasn’t just a foreign mission field, Thailand was home. My friends in Bangkok were not simply fellow comrades on some adventure, or a new connection to another culture, they were the ones who lived everyday life with me, who prayed forward victories beside me, who held me when I wept, who knew me through the good and bad, and loved me still.

Ironically, I can’t say that most of my time in Bangkok was easy or even necessarily happy. Often, I felt disconnected and discouraged. Often, I wondered where I even fit in that big city, and if pouring out my heart was worth it there. But, I think, actually, it was through those things that God showed me the sweetness and the depth of persevering love, and through the trials, He opened my heart to receive love from others when I needed it most.

Now, looking back, I’m so thankful for every season of my Bangkok years, and the sadness I feel today is really rather sweet, and rich, and meaningful. God really does use every little thing to shape us, and change us, and to work in our lives and relationships.

I’ve been reading Matthew 6 a lot lately, the part when Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven — the kind that can’t be stolen or destroyed. And I really believe that maybe relationships are some of the precious treasures Jesus speaks of. Invest in others. Love people. It’s always worth it. These are eternal, and in Jesus, relationships are forever.

My dear friend, Gloria, told me this week that God can expand our hearts to fit all the new things and people He places in our lives, in all the places He takes us. It made me feel so happy inside to remember that when we’re talking about love, there is always room for more.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Mt. 6:19-21]

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Why we should stop chasing our dreams: battling the idol of significance

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Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. Ps. 84:10

I am a product of my generation. And we are a generation of dreamers. Everybody (okay, not everybody but you know what I mean) wants to travel the world, or work for an NGO, or start their own business, or pursue more than one career. Everybody wants to make their own mark on the world somehow. And it’s good, so good. I love dreaming. To me, to live is to dream. And I think God loves it when we dream too. It gives Him space to move.

A couple years ago, when I sensed God calling me to stay in Thailand “indefinitely,” I had great hopes and expectations for what that might look like. I had dreamt of impacting culture, or of being part of some world-changing ministry, or of filling a need that no one else could fill. I wanted my time here to count for something significant. So I jumped in — passionate, excited, determined. I spent hours upon hours studying Thai. I rearranged my life to build relationships within the culture. I made space in my schedule to invest in my church and community. I prayed for the lost and hurting like I had never prayed before. And I loved it, and it was good, and God was in it.

But somewhere along the line, something happened. Somewhere along the line, I began to realize that nothing I had hoped for was coming true, that actually — in many respects — I was failing at all that God had set on my heart. I still couldn’t hold a decent conversation with my Thai neighbors. The Bible study I prayed would reach out to the unreached in Bangkok eventually dwindled into a group of teachers from my school. All the things I was doing and roles I was filling were simple, unexciting, and terribly dispensible.

And this is where the truth came out, because as I saw my dreams fall apart before me, I became discouraged and began to wonder if it was even worth it to stay in this city. Yet, this is exactly where God wanted me to be, and it’s the setting He chose to call me deeper in.

I decided to stay in Thailand because God told me to, but — though I hate to admit it — I guess that part of me also wanted a bigger storyline, a better resume, a more exciting testimony. And none of these things are in of themselves bad. My dreams for Thailand and my longing for significance are God-given, and my efforts that have spilled from them are pleasing to Him. May we never stop dreaming, and praying big prayers, and taking leaps of faith. But when all is said and done, it’s not about me or you or our dreams, it’s about Jesus. It is Jesus who defines greatness (in a very backwards way from the world we know). It is Jesus who makes life worth living. He is our joy, He is our prize, He is our delight. Man, I want to be like the psalmist who cried out, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Ps. 84:10), or like Paul who proclaimed that his life was “hidden with Christ in God,” and set his heart “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col.3:1-5). I want to take joy in filling cups with iced tea every Sunday at church, or in praying every night for a little girl I know who has nightmares, or in baking cookies for my neighbors, knowing that God uses every step of obedience to accomplish His purposes. I want to do these things not to fulfill a dream, but because of Jesus, because Christ’s love compels me (2 Cor.5:14).

So…the point is this: If you really want to make something of your life, don’t follow your dreams. Instead, follow the One who writes your dreams and plants them in your heart.

I know that my story in Thailand remains unfinished, and I don’t know what God has for me in the months and years ahead. But I pray that I find joy in chasing after Him, and letting my dreams unfold however He sees fit.

Do I really believe this? Sharing the Gospel in Cambodia

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In April, we took our first ever mission trip as Life Center Bangkok: three short days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our goal was simple: share about God’s love with anybody and everybody who’d listen. By day, we met people and tried to build relationships; by night, we held meetings at a nearby hotel and shared life stories, and God’s story too. We didn’t have elaborate strategies for getting people through the door; we didn’t even pass anything out to those we met. But in faith, we prayed and believed God’s heart for these people.

And somewhere in the middle of it all, I did start to wonder. I wondered what other Christians I know would think about our methods. I wondered if everyone back home in America would even approve. Would they think we’re crazy, boldly coming up to strangers in a foreign land and asking if we could share about Jesus? Or impolite? Or over the top?

The thing is, it is a little crazy, right? We are a little radical. And if I had doubts — any at all — that this Gospel is true, and powerful, and life-changing, then maybe doing all of that is pretty stupid. But how can I deny what I know? How can I deny what I’ve seen and experienced? How can I deny this God who has revealed His love to my heart, who has healed brokenness before my eyes, who has changed my life and others’ too? And if this God is real, if Jesus truly is the Hope of all hearts, and cities, and nations…then how can I not share with everyone and anyone? How can I not proclaim the truth I know, that others might find salvation and freedom and life in Jesus?

So maybe many in the church do have doubts, and maybe if you have doubts, you shouldn’t find yourself standing on the streets of another country, proclaiming a Gospel you’re not sold on. But I pray that God will reveal Himself so powerfully to His church, that every Christian would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is all that He says He is…that “radical” wouldn’t be radical anymore, and that whether it’s in America, or Africa, or Cambodia, all believers would find themselves doing crazy things sometimes.

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By the way, we had the joy of seeing God do some amazing things in Cambodia. On our short trip, we made contact with over 40 people who are interested in building a church in Siem Reap. Many at the evening meetings made decisions to follow Jesus, and eight were even baptized. Our God is unbelievable! Teams from my church will continue to go to Siem Reap as God carries on the work He started!

Last of all, thought I’d share this slideshow. I made it to share about Thailand with my mom’s church (which didn’t work out), so at least I can share it with all of you. Maybe it will give you some ideas for how to pray. I stole a lot of the pictures from Facebook, so thanks FB friends! 🙂

Greater Things: Thailand 2011-2012 from Holly Stangle on Vimeo.