Old Hymnals and Rice Paddies

I love the local church. From a young age, my parents instilled in me a passion for serving by doing one of the most revolutionary things a parent can do: they set me free. Age never entered into the picture as an issue, and on the mission field the opportunities are endless because every church is perpetually understaffed. I never felt like I had to hold back and let someone else fill my place because I wasn't qualified, old enough, or good enough. At 13 I lead worship for the first time. I don't remember all of the songs I chose but if I had to guess I probably went with one of my favorites, "As the Deer". It was several years after I had it committed to memory that I learned the English lyrics:

As the deer pants for the water
    So my soul longs after You
You alone are my heart's desire
    And I long to worship Thee
You alone are my strength, my shield
    To You alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my heart's desire
    And I long to worship Thee

The church was an old, decaying wood building on stilts that was being eaten away by termites. The pages of the ancient hymnals were frayed and worn from weather and frequent use over the years. Some books were missing pages or whole sections, but that wasn't a problem; sharing with your neighbor is convenient and expected in the Thai culture. I remember one Sunday while the preacher was giving his sermon, he discovered a wasp nest within the old wooden pulpit. Needless to say, the service was disrupted but everyone had a great laugh looking back on it.

Sunday School was held outside in the grass or in the neighboring rice fields after the rice had been harvested and the remains burned in preparation for the next season. Wide, flat expanses of these paddies created an open environment where we could adventure without wandering out of sight. Of course we were cautious of the tall weeds that would grow along the edges, out of practical fear of what snake could be minding his own business, not interested in being disturbed. I learned about David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion's den, and many other Biblical heroes here. Stories came to life on a felt board with a light blue background, I can only imagine because it represented the sky in any scenario the characters were placed in. None of the kids minded that due to lack of inventory certain people had to play double duty. It was easy; the Apostle Paul could transform into Simon Peter with a simple and strategic placement of a net full of fish. "Deep and Wide", "Oh How I Love Jesus" and many other (translated) children's classics taught me early lessons on the love of Christ and the joy of the Lord.

One Christmas, my friends and I spent hours and hours cutting hundreds of strips of colored paper for little origami stars that we strung together for decoration. We hung them along with paper cranes on long pieces of string that we then hung high through the air as a banner outside. All of the women in the church brought their signature dishes in large pots, arranged professionally in a long line on a series of folding tables. Guests from every church in the province were invited. In fact, leadership would meet and discuss which day surrounding Christmas each church would claim, so that everyone would have the opportunity to practice their own brand of hospitality to each other. It was like a week long travelling Christmas celebration with many of the same people in attendance, save the respected older members of each church that could not travel as much anymore. Even a few families from the tribal Lisu village would show up, braving the rough and dangerous road down from the mountains. As a kid, one of my favorite parts of the whole day was the Christmas raffle. Everyone would bring a simple, inexpensive gift to be turned in at a table where it would be assigned a number on a little piece of paper that would be folded up and placed in a jar. Mixed in would be numbers attributed to larger and more prestigious gifts that the church had saved up for and purchased, such as an over-sized stuffed animal or a 2 ft. tin container of cookies. At the end of the night, everyone would draw a number and take home a gift with the only goal being that they didn't end up with the same gift they themselves brought to the party.

We grew out of that rickety old church and began building on a new plot of land that was situated within walking distance of several core families that made up the church leadership. Eventually the hymnals were replaced and a brand new wooden pulpit was built carefully by hand. Instead of rice paddies next door, there were paddies across the street. It was a wonderful, welcome change that many faithful hearts had prayed and invested in for many years. But, I still look fondly back on the first church I lead worship in. It is clear that even in the most remote and secluded of places, the Lord delights in His children who gather to glorify Him together.

Construction on the new church as it neared completion.

Construction on the new church as it neared completion.

That's me in blue singing worship songs with my friends, praising the Lord for His blessings.

That's me in blue singing worship songs with my friends, praising the Lord for His blessings.

Many believers from other churches journeyed hours to celebrate with us, overflowing out the front doors.

Many believers from other churches journeyed hours to celebrate with us, overflowing out the front doors.