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I spent this afternoon on a train with a gazillion other people in the heart of Bangkok. My big body and beard made me seem like Sasquatch standing in the midst of the Thai people. Last week, while traveling in Laos, little kids couldn’t help but stare. One little girl was absolutely mesmerized by my presence—she just couldn’t make sense of this big blue eyed bearded dude, walking over when she didn’t think I was looking to stare. When I smiled at her it would break the trance and she would sheepishly run back to her grandmother, only to return again in a few minutes. Traveling through rural Laos we went through village after village with people sitting alongside the road, selling food or sitting by a fire. Cows meandered across the road without a concern in the world— dogs too. They didn’t seem to notice or care about the cars on the road. When I travel to other countries I enjoy experiencing rural life. We saw kids walking and riding bike to school, farmers out in the rice fields, even people bathing in the road side waters picket. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not romanticizing poverty, and I’m thankful for advances in medicine and technology, but there was something about this way of life that seemed good. Sure, it was different than our North American life, but there was a connection with the land that is easily lost with factory farms and air conditioning.

This afternoon I spent time in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. People crowded against the partition, some with their eyes closed and hands in a posture of prayer, others lying prostrate. There were monks over to the side participating in prayer, and of course people like me, just trying to make sense of it all. I have to say I was deeply moved. Yes, I believe in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, but I also believe in Jesus as the expression of God’s love for this world—God’s love for all those gathered in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. That’s what I’ve taken from this trip. God is at work in this world, and God is present in the people we encounter. This week I’ve experienced an overwhelming feeling of compassion and love. More than once my mind malfunctioned at the thought of all these people, everyday, living their lives, loving their families, planting their crops, working their jobs, or just sitting by the fire. Every one of them made in the image of God; every one of them a unique expression of God’s love.

What I enjoy most about traveling in other cultures is listening to different languages. More than once I tried to communicate with someone who didn’t speak english, and more than once I felt very foolish. I’ve concluded, however, that feeling foolish is good for the soul. Last Sunday I was invited to preach at a Lao church with an interpreter. Before I went up I kept repeating the word Sabaidee (the Lao word for good morning) so I would get it right. When I was finally invited up I said Sabaideye…which doesn’t mean anything. The whole place laughed. “What’d I say?” I asked my interpreter, who was also laughing at me. “Don’t worry about it, they get what you mean,” he said still laughing. On a bike ride later in the week the Lao guide talked to me about his family and his Buddhist beliefs. Then, after we had finished our ride, he asked, “You’re a big guy. How did you get such a big belly, eating elephant?” Then he laughed. “I come from a big people,” I said.

Empathy, love, and laughter—this is what it means to be made in the image of God.

 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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