I was 23.
Nearly a year of wonderings and wanderings after graduating from college.
I was ready.
Ready to spread my wings and fly,
ready to take a chance.
In 2007 I graduated with a degree in music. In my young, naivete I thought I would immediately be hired in full-time music ministry and that church job offers would simply flood in as soon as I walked across the stage with my diploma.
(I was wrong, by the way).
That summer I travelled to India for a two-month long mission trip. In many ways, that trip changed my life. My first time overseas, my first time fully immersed in an eastern culture, and the first time I really caught a glimpse of life abroad serving a God who isn’t American. A God of all nations.
I returned home more sick than I’ve ever been in my life, and still had no job and no direction for my life.
The difficult months that followed shook me to my core: extreme culture shock, depression, meandering and wanderings… but then in April of 2008, everything changed. You see, when I returned from India, my team spent several days in Bangkok, Thailand debriefing. I had a distant feeling in my heart, a feeling that I would return to Thailand one day.
Ten years ago, in April 2008, I interviewed for a Music Teacher position in Bangkok, Thailand. A few weeks later, I boarded a small airplane with 2 large suitcases (and a very heavy carry on) and moved to the other side of the world.
I didn’t know a single soul.
But that decision – that chance. It changed my life forever.
The friendships forged during that year forever changed me, the students I taught showed me what compassion looked like with hands and feet, and living in another culture taught me how to be empathetic.
That chapter of my life opened up doors for me to later serve in full-time Worship ministry, and the relationships there inspired me to pursue seminary. Many of the co-teachers I taught with are still my friends today.
The thing about taking chances is this: when the Holy Spirit of God prompts us to take steps of faith, or “chances” in our human thinking, the greater chance to take is to ignore that prompting and taking the wider, easier path.
Last Friday evening I returned to Seoul after a long, hot week in Bangkok partnering with and learning from ministries deep in the trenches of the Red Light districts. I’ve never been more thankful to flop in my own bed and simply be in silence (8 high school girls and 3 leaders all staying in one room is an experience too much for anyone – especially an introvert). I have also never been more touched experiencing God at work in some of the darkest places on the planet.
Many stories and books lie unwritten (for now) after this intense trip, but today I write just one of them.
Jill* attends our school and is a Junior this year. An extremely intelligent, sheltered 16-year-old with kind eyes and a compassionate smile holds a bright future in front of her. This bright future, surely pushed on her by her ever-achieving Korean parents, consists of ivy league schools, some lucrative career she probably doesn’t want, and high academics along the way… this girl is now friends with a prostitute.
Jill confided in our team earlier during the trip that she doesn’t like to cry,
especially with people.
She only cries alone.
When told that this trip “makes you cry” she questioned, “What if I don’t cry? Does that mean I don’t care?”
I assured her everyone’s response to injustices like trafficking and prostitution is different. Some people respond with tears, others respond with anger and even some respond with silent breaking.
As we cleaned up the nail polish, put away the chairs and swept the room that evening, I noticed Jill was not with the rest of the team. Our team threw a party – a party for prostitutes! A prostitute party. The blue hairs at church would change the subject at hearing about this kind of a party. No one talks about prostitutes at church. (Yet the Bible seems to be brimming with prostitutes – and what a horror to see that one of them, Rahab, even makes it into the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew’s Gospel! This, my dear readers is for another blog.)
During the prostitute party, we laughed, oh how we laughed. Laughter always seems to extend beyond language and cultural barriers. The gift of laughter breaks down walls. Laughter reminds us we are all the same, we are all human.
We played games, we worshiped together, we experienced the Spirit of God at work in the lives of these precious women. The only difference between “us” and “them” is just perhaps that life experiences somehow forced them to make a living in this way. To be exploited and sell their bodies to survive.
Jill became friends with a prostitute. A bleached-blonde, 40-year-old beautiful Thai woman. This woman waited patiently to talk to Jill. She waited patiently to have Jill, and only Jill, paint her nails. They laughed together trying to bridge the language gap and made a strong connection that night. The 16-year-old Korean girl and the 40-something-year-old prostitute.
After the women left and we continued cleaning, I discovered Jill in the corner, alone, with crocodile tears streaming down her eyes. She looked away from me as I approached her, embarrassed. This young girl who doesn’t like to cry in front of anyone; so I simply wrapped my arms around her.
“Yesterday when we saw the women standing in front of the bars and on the streets I was numb. I didn’t feel anything.”
This weekend is one of those weekends that will forever be etched into my memory; forever tucked away into my heart.
I was practically born in the nursery here at First Baptist Church of Medford, Oregon. My story, as the stories of many others, is weaved into FBC, and our stories make the story of this church. But the beauty of it all is that none of this is about us, it is all about Him.
My calling to ministry came at a young age, and a dream was born in the halls of my middle school as I began being a ministry leader at age 13. This weekend I got a chance to look into the kind, yet more wrinkled eyes of my dear youth pastor from those years, and as I told him, “I think of you guys all the time”, he kindly smiled and said, “Meridith, I pray for you”. Nothing else mattered at that moment. It was humbling, and gave me strength.
This weekend FBC Celebrated 125 years of ministry, and it made me grateful for those who have gone before me, and paved the way, and gave me an even greater understanding of my place and calling here at First Baptist Church.
I had the honor of meeting Dr. Haddon Robinson, a former Associate Pastor of FBC in the 50’s, and he later went on to be a Professor, and author books on the subject and topic of preaching. And let me tell you, he did not disappoint, He knows what he’s doing. At first glance, this elderly man of perhaps 80, or so, gives no spectacular impression. He is someone’s grandfather, some woman’s husband. But as he slowly, step by step climbed the steps on Saturday night, and then again on Sunday morning, the audience was captivated. You could have heard a pin drop in the building, and you couldn’t help but lean in and closely listen to every word he spoke, filled with wisdom of a long life lived serving the Lord.
“Habakkuk 2:4b “But the just shall live by his faith”, and in the faithfulness of God.” He repeated.
Another theme of the evening was a short paragraph read that a woman wrote in the 1920’s, reflecting on where the church had been, and what was to come. It spoke of the fact that things had not been done perfectly, but by God’s grace the church would continue, and that they would perceive even greater opportunities for the future. How timely those words were. There were individuals in that building that night who needed to be reminded: we must forgive.
Many things spoke to me that night, I wish I could tell you about all of them. Even Sunday morning. I confidently walked onto the stage as a prayer was being prayed, and I fully knew that I needed to proceed with the confidence that God has placed me here, at this church, for his purposes. I knew full well as I glanced over the faces of closed eyes, that some of the people in this building had come with preconceived ideas of how our church was in the past, and how it was now, especially in regards to worship and music. I knew that many had doubts in their minds that a woman could be standing on stage, guitar in hand, and be leading this congregation in worship. But, I pushed the doubts and questions aside, and prayed that God would fill me with his Spirit and with the words he wanted me to speak.
I educated those on worship, in an interesting way yesterday. If you were there, you probably had no idea what was running through my mind, but as I began to exercise within my calling and skills, I had no more fear.
I was struck, as I looked at the words of some of the old hymns or songs sung in the 20’s and 30’s, as we had several worship folders from that time, preserved. It is profound thinking that those before us sang the same words and prayers that we sing even today. This was the heart of what I prayed people would see on Sunday. That we can look at the past, honor those who have paved the way for us, but to also function in the current culture, and find a profound humility that our God is unchanging, and we can sing those timeless things to him, even know.
I teared up as I looked out and saw how people sang with their whole hearts. “Oh, praise Him, Oh, praise Him! He is Holy! He is Holy!”, right after singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”. It was beautiful to see voices being lifted up to our God, and hands raised in surrender and agreement with words of truth. In that moment, I knew my job was done. People were worshipping, and they didn’t, by any means, need me to do that. It was beautiful. My heart was touched, and it was reaffirmed in my heart that: this isn’t about me (even though there were a NUMBER of things trying to distract me and cause me to be selfish about MY title, and MY position, God humbled me really quickly about that!).
Here are a few pictures, and a partial video of the song we did. I love the words: “Scars and struggles on the way, but with joy our hearts can say, yes our hearts can say. Never once did we ever walk alone, never once did you leave us on our own, You are faithful, God You are faithful…”
I’m sure there will be more to share about this weekend, but for now, that’s what I got!
I just got back literally an hour ago from a conference that wasn’t even for me, but I was deeply touched and God began to tug and pull strings on my heart during this time.
So, here’s a little bit about how all this came together. Darin Pust is a friend from the old days of the Simpson University Music Department, and we were in choir and other various things together. Anyway, he contacted me maybe in October and let me know that he and a team of people would be coming to Thailand for a conference; he was leading worship and the rest of the team would be doing child care. He later let me know that he was trying to talk Becky Levy, another good friend from Simpson, into coming to help lead worship as well.
Time quickly passed, and before I knew it, they were here, and it was time to go! I met up with them on Saturday to do some sightseeing with them around Bangkok (it was refreshing.. I haven’t ever been a tourist in my own city!). As things came together, and it came time to leave on Sunday, I FINALLY understood what kind of retreat this was. For some reason I had thought it was for Christian Chinese leaders in China, but rather, it was a forum for all the CAMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance) leaders in China. Obviously since the only tie I have to CAMA is Simpson, I did feel quite out of the “circle” as you might say, but from the beginning I felt that I was getting just a small picture of this intricate network of people and I felt so blessed to be apart of their ministry, and to get to feel like I was stepping into their shoes for just a few days.
This retreat happens once a year, and always outside of China, since it is still against their government to have large gatherings of believers. The entire time, I just was struck with the truth that these people rarely get a chance to really worship like this, and hear encouragement from God’s word. I was just struck.
Last night, all the women attended a nice banquet. I wasn’t totally looking forward to it, since sometimes these gatherings tend to be unnecessarily tear-filled and super emotional. Not to my surprise, there were tears, but I found myself crying and just being struck with conviction and just looking at these women and being filled with such awe and respect.
I guess my idea of a “missionary” were families who came to churches and dressed really weird and spoke. That’s all I really knew of them. Then, when I began attending Simpson University, my eyes were open to the needs in the mission field around the world. I was struck with the concept of learning about other cultures, and learning that other cultures didn’t have the same values that we had. My idea of being a “missionary” was totally turned upside-down.
Now, yes I’m in Thailand right now, but sometimes I don’t consider myself a “missionary”, but I realized during this conference that I really am a missionary, and it just looks different for everyone.
The other thing that really struck me was the strength that these women have. There were all ages in this room, and many of them aren’t much older than I am, and have families of 3 or 4 children. I was struck with the deep, reverent faith they all had. Sure, it had been a year of trials for them, but still, their deep faith that God is their provider and the one who will care for all their needs completely blew me away.
Faith has been a huge theme of my life, especially this last year, but when I looked into the eyes of these people and heard about their ministries in China, it made some of the trials I have experienced here in Thailand just fade away. I get to go home in two months, and some of these families still have years before they will get to be on home assignment again. Wow.
There’s so much more I could say, but I feel a fire burning deep within that won’t go out. I know that I’m supposed to be exactly where I am right now. I know I need to finish this degree with Liberty; teaching will really bring so many options for me in the future. I’m not saying anything definitely right now, but after this conference, I realized: 1) how much I will really miss Thailand, 2) how much I will miss being overseas, 3) what an adjustment it will be for me to go back, and 4) that I’m willing and open to go literally wherever God wants me to go.
I would like to say so much more now, but this is all I have time for! Homework and lesson plans need to be done!
This past week I had coffee with Joni, my good friend and wife of the Youth Pastor at our church here in Thailand. Her and I are quite similar in many ways, but through her friendship I’ve really gained some perspective on who I once was. Not so long ago.
Growing up in the church and with your parents being important people in the church and in ministry, it’s so easy to be fake. You have to. Or you think you have to. You think you have to pretend everything is great and perfect so they will think you’re a perfect PK, then you quote all the memory verses you learned in AWANA, and of course if you didn’t sing the hymns during church that meant that you were rebelling and so that wasn’t allowed either. I was so fake. I’ve really begun to see this more clearly just recently since coming to Thailand, because the fake-ness continued in college. And for that I must apologize.
I realized at a young age, 13 to be exact, that I was called to do ministry. I can’t really explain that call, but God definitely put it on my heart. That was also the same age I became involved in worship teams and being up in front of people. Our Youth Pastor always encouraged us as the band, that we especially needed to be right with God. I think for some reason that filtered to me with a translation saying “you need to be perfect. you can’t let people see your struggles. you can’t let anyone see your weakness”, though I know that’s not how it was intended to be.
I believe in college, those walls began to come down, but I really feel in some ways it got a bit worse at times. This is my confession as a former faker, and for that I believe I owe hundreds, maybe even thousands of people apologies.
Secular music listening was always looked down upon growing up, so when high school hit and all my friends listened to secular music, at first I thought THEY were the bad ones. Then I started listening to it and hiding it, like it was some huge sin I was hiding. I’m not condoning secular music, nor condemning it. It’s like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’ – but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything”. What matters here to God is our hearts. Our hearts are easily drawn to things that seem to look pleasurable to the world, but we must always ask our own hearts if this will cause the eyes of our hearts to look elsewhere, and away from the LORD. I would apply this to other “grey” areas that seem to exist in the church today, such as alcohol, eating, hobbies, and anything else that takes up a significant amount of time in your day.
So, back to the faker I was. I think my walls began to come down around the time I went to India, and more around my Senior year at Simpson. So many Christians are just like me, like I was. It’s much easier to pretend like everything is just fine than face cleaning up the mess that you dump in front of everyone. These lessons have so much to do with worship leading for me, because in my mind, YES, as a worship leader you must always be even more sensitive the LORD’s voice, but that does not in any mean: 1) you are better than everyone else 2) you have no need to take extra Bible studies or 3) to be fake all the time because everyone is watching you.
I’m not sure what my ultimate point is, BUT after talking with Joni yesterday she encouraged me in several ways as I go on beyond GES to whatever is next. Because of the way I’ve been brought up, I need to recognize that my first instinct is almost always to serve, and not to be served in ministry. But as I’ve seen first hand here, if you have nothing to give, you end up much more dry than you were before, which leads often to confusion and burn out.
My prayer for the future is that I will be filled continually through God’s word, worship, fellowship, confession, and truth. So this is me, I am a former faker. But by God’s grace I will continue as I have learned and experienced here in Thailand, and be OPEN about who I am and the things God is doing in me and teaching me.