In 2011, my wife Charmaine and I spent over two weeks in Thailand, meeting with refugees and pastors, learning more about the Karen people group and about international missions work with our friend Joanna, a missionary that we support. We came back in the middle of July and, 4 days later, I took a group of teenagers to Colorado for a summer missions trip. We worked with a local church that does outreach to several local apartment complexes, including a couple of locations that are filled with very low-income residents. Then, about a week after we got back from that trip, I had the honor and privilege of officiating the wedding of a former student. It was an exciting and absolutely exhausting month.
Throughout my two trips, God kept bringing the idea of hope into my mind. The history of the Karen people is very interesting, and several times in my trip it was paralleled with the history of Israel in the Old Testament. The Karen people were evangelized early in the nineteenth century by Adoniram Judson – a small people group called by God surrounded by nations that served other Gods. The Karen people were tempted to stray from God. Eventually, as was described by Karen pastors in Thailand, they strayed from the path God had called them down and God judged them, exiling them from their homes. But, like Israel, God has not done this simply for the sake of punishment or out of anger; I believe he has done this out of love and a desire to have these people reconciled to Him. It is my prayer and my belief, sparked by the prayers of the Karen pastors and leaders that I met in Thailand, that the Karen will again one day be reestablished in their homes in Burma and that they will be a shining light for the one true God in a region where they are surrounded by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The biggest struggle for the Karen leaders, as well as the biggest difference between the Karen who are showing signs of life and those that have given up, is hope. Pastors like Henry, Weelapong, and Edward (I’m changing some names for their protection) show a great deal of excitement and anticipation for what God is going to do, and they desperately pray for His will to be done. Many others, however, have given up; and who can blame them. They have been driven from their homes (some several times) by a government that hates them because of their race. They have seen friends and family members killed. They trekked through jungles barefooted, avoiding poisonous snakes and spiders and dangerous animals. They live in terrible conditions in refugee camps in a foreign land, run by foreigners that are teaching them ideas that do not mesh with their heritage. Where could anyone find hope in the midst of that?
While working with the students in Colorado, there was one apartment complex in particular that we struggled with, a place called Green Gables. Not only was Green Gables the largest of the locations that our group worked at, it was the worst off. The kids that live here spend very little time at home during the day, and the parent (almost none of the families have 2 parents) is typically happy to not have to deal with the kids. Problems that we typically expect from inner-city teens, like drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and extreme attitude problems, start here around ages 7 or 8. Few kids here reach the 8th grade. When the sun goes down, almost everyone makes their way indoors because they know it isn’t safe to be outside there in the dark. Where can you find hope in that?
…look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
-2 Cor 4:18 (ESV)
The truth is, an honest assessment of any life can lead us to struggle to find hope, apart from the one thing in the universe that can give us a future worth living for – Christ. Those pastors in Thailand look not at what is currently happening or what seems likely but at what God can and will do, and they have hope. They know what God has promised for those who follow Him. In Colorado, we were told of a group of girls from Green Gables that had found hope in the Lord. They were entering High School with great grades and with optimism for what was in store for their future. They were looking past the struggles in their lives, their families, and their community to see that God has a plan for them.
God is doing amazing things, and the future is only going to fill us even more with awe and wonder at God’s amazing power. God told His people through the prophet Habakkuk;
Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told. (1:5)
God said this leading into the judgment of Assyrian and the exile of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. God was showing His people that justice would come, even when it meant judgment against Israel. God’s plan is good and, in the end, works to bring Him the glory He deserves. He will fulfill all the promises He has made, and we can live knowing that He is in control, even when life seems out of control. Justice will come, and God is going to do absolutely astounding things right before our eyes. So, despite what we see in our culture, in our economic situation, in the political situations around the world, or in our own homes, we can have hope that God is in control and that He has a plan for each of us, ultimately ending in an eternal rest with Him in glory!