Thanksgivings and Thankful Hearts

Thanksgivings and Thankful Hearts

I swallowed hard, trying not to cry. The rain beat on the roof of the partially enclosed pavilion and shrouded the bridge over the swollen river with a gray veil. On the other side of the bridge was Myanmar. Just past this frowning lady in her tiny office was Thailand. She wouldn’t let me go on and Myanmar wouldn’t let me come back. It looked like I would be spending the night on the bridge in the rain. On second thought, maybe a few tears would help.

Preaching in Bon Saw

It had been a good, but exhausting trip, and I was ready to go home. Our adventures had begun days before with a visit to Bon Saw last Saturday. We made the long trip to the village near the border of Myanmar to participate in the church Thanksgiving celebration. We had a blessed service with lots of singing and testimonies. It was a good group, with more than a 100 people attending. Paul preached a great message on thanksgiving which emphasized the Gospel. More singing concluded the service and we got out the medicine.

We saw a lot of people.   Many had the complaints we see all the time. Stomachache, headache, no energy, cough. But for some reason, we also saw lots of wounds that day. There were three people with machete wounds. One teenaged girl had a cut on her bandaged foot. I was happy to see a clean wound with professional-looking sutures. Two men had machete cuts on their hands. Those didn’t look so good. I mentally added butterfly bandages to my list of supplies to buy and gave out generous portions of soap, Betadine, antibiotic cream, and bandages. I had a good supply of bandages this time. On impulse I had added them to my stack of supplies we purchased at the wholesale pharmacy a couple of days before. The Lord knew I would need them.

Besides the machete wounds, there were four kids with nasty, deep, oozing sores which the parents said started out as small cuts and scrapes and continued to get bigger. They all had an itchy rash around the area of their lesions. I gave out more antibiotic cream and more supplies for keeping them clean. I gave away every single bandage I had impulsively bought. And I knew I had to research to see what might cause these horrible lesions.

Gathering for the Thanksgiving Service.

We had expected to get a room in one of the inexpensive resorts that dot the stunning landscape around the village. After the Thanksgiving dinner (which did not include turkey or dressing, but did include the roasted pork balls that are Paul’s favorite Lahu food) the pastor invited us to stay in the village.

We were tired and ready to kick back with a little privacy, but we didn’t want to offend by refusing his kind offer. A lovely young lady whose husband was away working in Korea welcomed us into her home. Her house was chosen because it was one of the nicest in the village with Thai-style construction – block and plaster rather than bamboo. And it had the only western-style toilet in the village. Of course the toilet didn’t flush (you had to pour water from a nearby barrel to manually flush) and the sink wasn’t connected. But it was inside the house and it did have a working shower. It was hot enough in the house that the lack of warm water in the shower didn’t matter.

I slept like a log on the mattress on the floor. It’s truly a blessing to be able to sleep anywhere. Paul and Kimmy did not fare so well. The hard mattress hurt Paul’s back and the rat trying to get in through Kimmy’s screened window kept her from sleeping. We were up very early the next morning to go to Sunday services in another village. No problem. I think I was the only one not lying awake waiting for morning.

Our sweet hostess waved goodbye as we loaded up the truck and said she would like to have us and our dental team stay with her again when we come back in a few weeks. So kind!

The next morning we traveled further up the twisty mountain road to a church we haven’t visited before. The preacher made an announcement over the loudspeaker, probably inviting people to the services, and soon a crowd gathered. This church was larger than most we work with. They filled the newer-looking building and listened attentively to the sermon. Then it was time for medicine. Before we were totally set up, we were swamped. Long lines filled the church building. I noticed the dirty strings tied around the wrists. These weren’t church members, but spirit worshippers. The whole village seemed to be crammed in the church building. It turns out that the pastor’s announcement had said, “Missionaries are here to give out free medicine. Come and get it.”

I almost panicked. We were on a tight schedule with another church service to attend across the mountain. I didn’t have time to see this many people. Besides, I had brought medicine enough for three churches and some extra to send to Myanmar by a preacher who had come to the Thanksgiving. This crowd would take all I had. What could I do?

Kimmy and friend in Bon Saw.

I prayed and saw the patients. The meds melted away as I handed them out as person after person came through the line.

Kimmy handed out the Bible story color books and crayons we brought for the children. Skinny little arms tied up with dirty strings reached for them eagerly. What would they think of the Bible story pictures, I wondered? They had probably never heard of Adam and Eve, Noah, or Jesus.

At last we had to pack up. I left medicine with the pastor to give out to the remaining patients and prayed that I would be able to make the little I had left stretch as far as it needed to go.

The next church was another we had never visited before. It was even larger than the first one. And this sermon was even more touching than the one before. After the service a young woman stood up with tears streaming down her face.

“I thought I was a Christian,” she said. “But I know now from what the missionary said that it isn’t enough to go to church and to come from a Christian family or Christian village. I don’t know Jesus.”

We were so thankful to see the Lord work in this heart! Please pray for this lady as she begins her true walk with the Lord. We longed to be able to talk to her more and make sure she understood the gospel, but the language restraints made that difficult. We are sure the pastor will follow up with her, and certain that the Lord will continue the work He began in this life.

I packed up medicine and gave it to the pastor from Myanmar before we started the clinic for the church members. I was sure there wouldn’t be any left to send to those eagerly awaiting the supplies if I waited until after the clinic.

Another long line stretched out by the table which held the pitifully few supplies we had left. But, like the loaves and fishes, the Lord seemed to multiply them. The last person in line reached for his medicine – and I had it to give. There were even a few things left over to leave with the pastor. We traveled back empty-handed, but blessed and content.

We had a day to regroup, then headed for the border again on Tuesday. It’s a five- hour drive to Mae Sai where we cross over into Myanmar. We went early so Paul could rest up and do some quiet preparations for the largest of the Thanksgiving celebrations the next day. Two of the kids were home already, so Kimmy stayed behind with them. (After the night of the rat, I don’t think she minded too much.) Rusty came with us and so did our interpreter, Ai Donkham, and his wife.

The trip was long and difficult with pouring rain and heavy traffic on the curving roads.

As we neared the border city, we got a phone call. Molly and Danny were on the Myanmar side, alone and not sure where they should go to meet their father. Panic! Would we have time to go across the border before it closed? How would we find them? Could we get to them before some sex trafficker found them?

More phone calls and a different story evolved. They were on the Thailand side and their uncle was with them. Asa, one of our workers, was supposed to take them across to meet their father, who they don’t remember ever seeing. They had been looking forward to this meeting for weeks. But a change of plans (which we never figured out) meant that Asa didn’t come for them. The uncle wanted to know if we would take them across.

We couldn’t. We aren’t their parents, and the fact that we are “farang” would send out alarm signals. The officials would think WE were the traffickers. We couldn’t risk it.

We quickly discussed ways and means and figured out a way to accomplish the meeting. We would put them up in a hotel for the night and arrange for someone to take them across the border the next morning. The meeting would happen.

Not.

In spite of several phone calls with an interpreter, there was still miscommunication. Finally, after standing outside the hotel and waiting for them for about 45 minutes I was able to get Molly on the phone.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“On a song tau going back home,” she said.

I could hear the bitter disappointment in her voice. More plans. Paul will make the trip again Monday to take them to meet their dad. Their father will come across from Myanmar into Thailand to meet them. Paul will pick up Andy on the way back and come home Monday night. It will be a rough day for him with 10 hours of driving on steep, curving roads, but he is willing to do that for the kids.

That evening Paul studied, Rusty, to my surprise, found a gym to do his workout, and I went shopping. The streets are lined with shops and the sidewalks crowded with people selling their wares. Whatever you want, someone is selling it cheap in Mae Sai. It’s even cheaper on the other side of the river in Myanmar. I walked the mile or so from our hotel in the rain, splashing through puddles in my new, now-painful shoes to get to the shops. I had fun, but by the time I returned to the hotel I had blisters. I got back in time to go out again for supper – back along the road I had just traveled. By the time we bought pizza and returned to our hotel, I was limping on broken blisters.

The next day brought an early-morning walk to the border. I only had the one pair of shoes – the painful ones — so it was not a pleasant stroll, but we got to the little diner where we always ate and had breakfast.

Rusty and I showed our passports and went through without problem. Paul was missing a necessary piece of paper and was turned away. People were waiting on the other side to take us to the village in the mountains. A crowd would be gathered to hear Paul preach. He HAD to get across. He took off on foot to go to the immigration office. He walked another mile or so to get there, then waited for the office to open. Finally he was able to meet with an official and wade through the paperwork. A side trip to get a photo made and then back again to meet with another official, who announced that none of it was necessary. He had the appropriate visa so that he could get through. Back again and this time across the border – two hours after he started the process.

Meanwhile, we took a different kind of taxi to the home of an acquaintance to wait. At last Paul arrived and the car came to pick us up to take us to the village.

Roads in Myanmar are made of cobble-stone-like rocks, but they feel like they are made of bowling balls. We bounced and flew into the air for more than hour over the teeth-rattling roads. Poor Rusty kept hitting his head against the hand-grip above the door. We’re thankful he didn’t get a concussion!

Soggy bits of road gave even more excitement to the trip.  At one point the truck ahead of us (giving us escort) got stuck in the mud.  As the driver tried to free it, it slid into another truck which was also stuck.  At length they got through the mud hole and it was our turn to attempt to get through it.  I’m thankful to say that we made it fine. 

At last we arrived in the village. The large church building was nearly full and the service had already started. We came in, sat down, and almost immediately Paul was called on to preach. It had not been exactly the calm, quiet preparation time preachers like to have before they preach – but Paul gamely jumped in and preached an excellent message about thankfulness. As usual, he clearly brought out the Gospel as he does in every message.

Another Thanksgiving meal and visiting in our awkward way with limited vocabulary with the pastors and village leaders and the afternoon wore on. We met Molly and Danny’s father and his new wife and baby. We made arrangements with him to meet the kids on Monday, telling him how much the kids wanted to see him. Then we loaded back into the car and jounced back to the border.No problem leaving Myanmar. I limped on extremely sore feet across the bridge with the flooding river underneath. The rain drizzled down and I was ready — more than ready – to head home.

I handed the grumpy-looking lady my passport and waited for her to stamp it and send me on. And waited and waited. She kept turning the pages and looking at it, tapping her long fingernails against the pages.

“Is there a problem?” I finally asked.

“Just wait over there,” she snapped.

Two more people came in and examined my passport.

“Where is your old passport?” one of them demanded.

“Er…at home in Chiang Mai,” I said. “Why?”

“We need to see your former visa on your old passport. You should have brought it with you.”

“But, I’ve been through here several times and no one ever asked for it. I had my last visa transferred to the new passport at immigration several months ago. And I have a new visa that I got here in Thailand. See?”

She snatched the passport away from me.

“I see you had an overstay,” she said coldly. “And your passport doesn’t make sense. I can’t allow you to return to Thailand.”

“But – the overstay was a mistake and we paid a big fine to take care of it,” I stammered. I didn’t tell her it wasn’t our mistake, but we paid the huge fee because we didn’t want to cause trouble.

“And I have a new visa, if you will let me show you.”

She pulled it away again. “You’ll have to have someone bring your passport.”

The gate would close soon. Paul would have to drive ten hours to get it here. We had already left Myanmar and couldn’t go back without another stamp to show we were entering from another country. There was no place to stay the night but on the no-man’s land of the bridge between the countries.

I struggled not to cry, beaten down by exhaustion and the nagging pain of my blistered feet.

Paul had gone through first and was already outside in Thailand. Rusty, bless his heart, refused to go on but gallantly stayed with me as we waited to hear their verdict. He wasn’t about to leave me alone on the bridge all night.

One of the ladies made a phone call to immigration in Chiang Mai. She finally came out with my poor disputed passport and handed it to me.

“Go to immigration and get this fixed,” she said. She handed me a slip of paper. “Ask for my friend. She understands the situation and will help you.”

With a grateful heart I limped into Thailand and we, at last, headed home.

That will be my last trip into Myanmar for a while, but getting the passport sorted out is a top priority. If I have to leave for an emergency, I want to be sure I can get back in! I couldn’t go to immigration today because everything is closed. The late king’s body has been lying in state for the year since he died. Today his body was burned on a massive funeral pyre. The whole country has stopped for a final day of mourning his passing.

Please pray for Thailand as the new king takes a more visible role since the year of mourning is over.

And pray for us as we continue into this busy thanksgiving season. Paul will preach in a village on Sunday for a regular service, take the kids to the border on Monday, and then we go to another Thanksgiving on Tuesday. Meanwhile, I have to restock my entire supply of medicine and bag it up to distribute. And order more coloring books.

We are looking forward to our daughter, Rebekah, and her family arriving soon. Her husband, Andrew, is a dentist and will be doing clinics in the villages. Of course, we can’t wait to see them, and our three grandsons. Our friends, Cy and Diane Smith, will be coming to help as well.

Please pray for us as we continue through this busy and blessed season. We are thankful for the opportunities to share the Gospel and to serve the people we love so much. We just need an extra measure of strength and grace to accomplish everything before us.

God – who delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians and me from a night on a wet, dark bridge – is good, and we have no doubt He will see us through!