Rings of Hope

 

“Don’t worry, I still have my ring to sell…”

 

 


Twelve rescued girls face the streets without our help; a certain path back to the brothels. Most of these girls are younger than my daughters.

And so we began our work – without resources and long-range plans. But with the heart of the Father who leaves the flock to rescue the one.

That was 3 1/2 months ago.

Yesterday, our project manager sold her husband’s wedding ring to make up a shortfall in her finances.


 

Many are called, but few are chosen

What does it mean to be fully dedicated to God’s calling?

I’ve been so blessed to have worked alongside some pretty amazing people. Back in Boise I watched my ministry leaders navigate one difficult situation after another, never being perfect but always remaining focused on Christ.

Moving overseas intensified that experience; we were suddenly surrounded by an army of saints who had “dropped their nets” to follow God’s leading into certain difficulty and sacrifice.

But it’s not just the western Christians that inspire us to humility and passion for reaching the lost.

I’ve met Filipino missionaries who came to Thailand to plant churches and show the love of Jesus to a population caught in a very strong current of Buddhism.

I met a man elsewhere in Asia who lost his son to illness, nearly lost his wife, navigated severe illness with his daughter, and was somehow still able to endure incredible hardships and poverty and stay the course God laid before him.

I met a woman born into the religious caste in her country, who met Jesus and literally “…left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields…” (Matthew 19:29) for His sake. She was ostracized, completely alone and despised by everyone she had known growing up. After more than 30 years she is the most scripturally grounded and knowledgeable person I’ve ever known. Her love for Jesus and her passion for reaching the lost have driven her to reach hundreds each year.

I could go on for days about the giants of the faith I’ve met in the past three years.

But there’s something special about seeing someone very close to you making the daily decision to choose trust in God over the temptation of easier worldly provision.

Our project manager in Chiang Mai is a stunning example of that right now.

Starting a new ministry is hard. We are usually at our most vulnerable; doubt and fear threaten to overcome our confidence in the leap of faith God has requested of us. But there is power in first steps.

 

Life without a safety net

In the States most of us have multiple safety nets to keep us alive and well, even if trouble might mean temporary discomfort. Lose your job and chances are you can get another one before things get too crazy. Or if not, you might have savings. Or assets you can sell.  Or unemployment checks coming in, or a retirement fund to raid. Or maybe you have friends, family, or people in your church or neighborhood or on FaceBook that are willing to step in and lend a hand. Maybe someone starts a GoFundMe account for you.

And if all that fails? We still have thousands of churches and charities ready to help.  Still some fall through the cracks and end up on the streets, but mostly our nation experiences a very different reality than most of the people on our planet.

In SE Asia, many people do not have even basic safety nets. Thailand boasts low unemployment, but jobs can be very hard to find and most do not pay well.

 

A world apart

We’ve seen this in our own home as Gunya recently searched for a job with her new degree in hospitality services. She’s a very hard worker, intelligent, speaks multiple languages, and rarely needs direction to be effective. With all that, the best she’s found so far is a job working seven  days a week, 14 hours per day, for 8,000 baht per month (about $260, roughly 60 cents an hour).

Yes, most stuff is cheaper here. The US cost of living index is 72.96 and Thailand’s is 48.91. A big difference, to be sure. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can live comfortably here for mere pennies on the dollar. You can’t.

You can survive, but not live in a way Americans would consider “comfortable”.

There’s real poverty here. In the context of American expectations, the poverty all around us is extreme. There are rats and cockroaches, trash, pervasive sewer smells. Large portions of the population live in grass-roofed huts, the most common family transportation is a $300 scooter, they eat rice at every meal. There are naked kids in the streets, everyone has chickens … you get the idea.

The poverty we see every day stings. It creates desperation and breeds vulnerability. And there’s no way out – no safety net to soothe the fall. Loan sharks offer quick cash and then come calling for big paybacks. There really is no way out. Ever.

This is how many children end up in brothels.

 

Into the unknown

I think it’s scarier to step out in faith as a Thai than as an American. If you crash and burn, there’s no safety net. It may seem that Thais have less to lose initially, but financial holes are infinitely harder and often impossible to climb out of.

 

With that bit of perspective, consider this …

Our project manager for The Phoenix Alliance in Chiang Mai told us from the start that she was willing to sacrifice in order to minister to young girls in their recovery from sex trafficking. After all, her father was a pastor, and she grew up with all the financial uncertainty that accompanies a life of service. She was prepared.

We knew this commitment would be put to the test sooner rather than later.

Right off the bat we had to make a hard choice: Do we forge ahead with our ministry in order to care for the girls that we knew needed help immediately – or do we encourage our project manager to take another job and start slowly with our ministry through The Phoenix Alliance?

Tough choice with really big consequences.

 

Anything worth doing

On the surface, this answer is easy:  You start slowly and do things the right way. Deliberately. Intelligently. Thoughtfully. And possibly with an abundance of detail. This is my comfort zone. I hate diving into things without a solid foundation. I hate risk, and I hate being unprepared.

But wait, that approach would have forced us to abandon a dozen young girls who were struggling hard with their recovery. We were out of options for these girls. Their next step was living on the street which would inevitably see them forced back into the brothels. A cycle that seems endless without long-term intervention.

Most of these girls are younger than my daughters.

Our family motto (“Do the next right thing”) failed to yield a clear answer here. Because the next right thing for our new ministry was to hit the brakes and pursue our registration, funding, detailed operational planning, etc. But the next right thing for the girls was to rescue them from certain darkness. Right now.

Uh oh.

It’s not so easy to look a child in the eye and tell them they’ll have to go ahead and go back to work in a brothel because we haven’t had time to develop our business plan just yet.

 

An American Approach

Almost from the conception of The Phoenix Alliance, we received a lot of questions about our long-term plans. Fair enough. Valid questions. I tried to communicate those plans … our vision … as best I could. But we had hit the ground running and the Planner was developing the plans as we went.

Somehow it didn’t feel right for me to force plans that God hadn’t fully revealed to us yet.

Perhaps it came across as though we were unprepared and ill-equipped for the things we shared. I can’t argue with that. But our faith was firmly in the Planner, rooted and grounded in His heart to heal the rescued. And for now that was enough for us, even if it didn’t satisfy everyone around us.

When we returned to Thailand in January with roughly half our family’s support discontinued, we weren’t angry with anyone. We really didn’t make it easy on our supporters, did we? But we didn’t worry, because we knew God was walking right next to us. That’s a pretty confidence-inspiring realization.

This experience led me to ponder how our American approach to ministry looks a lot like our  approach to business. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing because Americans are typically really good at running effective businesses. But does that leave space for God to do things His way?

 

A spiritual reality check

We like to put conditions on things, in a way that I imagine makes God scratch His head sometimes. Those conditions are born from education and experience, but also almost always stem from a perspective of self-reliance.

I imagine God saying … Didn’t you read my book? I gave you just one simple formula to follow:

 

Love Me + know Me + know my Word + trust Me + follow Me + love My creation = Effective Ministry

Or the scripture reference version:

Matt 22:47 + Col 1:9 + Psalm 119:11 + Prov 3:5 + Matt 4:19 + Mark 12:31 = Matt 25:21

 

So are we meant to plan and use the brains and gifts He gave us? Of course!

I just don’t think He meant for us to use those gifts as an excuse to cut Him out or to delay our actions until we feel comfortable with our own designs on sustainability.  Our designs. By our own power and clever marketing. Yikes. Dangerous concept.

This calls for a kind of balance that ultimately points back to the true condition of our hearts. Do we really … I mean REALLY love and trust God? As my own situational storm was raging and our boat threatened to sink, I remembered that God only expects us to do the things He has equipped us to do.

He will do the rest, just as Jesus calmed that storm on the boat. And by the way, why was I worried? Didn’t I trust God?

This was and is convicting to me as we try to shelter our rescued girls from the savage fate that awaits them without intervention.

 

His way is perfect

In a nutshell, this is how we’ve ended up on our knees for the past several months, praying for God’s continued direction and faithful provision. We were all united in the decision to move forward in faith, “doing the next right thing” by standing in the gap for the girls and allowing God to provide in His way.

And He has. In HIS way.

His way is not our way. You’ve heard that before, right? Well, what does that even mean?

Sometimes, God waits until the 11th hour to come to our aid, which gives us an opportunity to fearlessly trust Him right up to the edge of the cliff. Sometimes He will have us lay out a 20-step plan before we take the first step out the door.

Sometimes He asks us to walk in faith, alone. This means not having the answers that we feel we so desperately need from the start.

And so we must ask: Am I sure this is God’s leading? Yes. OK then, go. Just go. Do your best to sort things out quickly, but go.

If God called you to a ministry 10 years ago, are you still “waiting on His timing” today? Are you 100% sure that you are waiting on Him and not the other way around?

If I’m making you uncomfortable, I know how you feel. Sorry not sorry. I love you though. Enough to embolden you on … to your own high calling.

 

Right off the cliff, no ‘chute

In the beginning, we raised enough to cover the most basic expenses in Chiang Mai for 2 1/2 months. Not a terrible start, and God was faithful, and no one lacked for anything.

When that ran out and we were unable to secure more funding from the States, our family diverted support funding to cover the second half of that third month. Again God was faithful and no one lacked for anything. Kids ate food; everyone slept under cover.  No worries.

Now as we start month four, we have $50. Total. Our project manager has a family to provide for, and $50 isn’t going to make much of a dent. But still, God is faithful and no one will lack. The month has only just begun, but there’s no panic.

 

Lord of the rings

Yesterday our project manager sold her husband’s wedding ring to help bridge their financial gap. I was shocked to hear this. How could you sell such a meaningful piece of jewelry?

Because let’s be honest, it’s just a shiny circle of metal. A symbol. And it was worth enough to be a legitimate (if temporary) safety net. Her marriage will be unaffected by this. But the girls she can now continue to serve will be affected for eternity. How’s that for perspective?

The ring seemed to concern me more than it concerned her. I apologized for not having enough to keep them afloat this month. Did she have a plan for surviving the rest of the month?

Her answer:

“Don’t worry, I still have my ring to sell.”

As I write this, my eyes begin to tear at the beauty of that statement, “Don’t worry”. Once again God has provided. Once again we will not lack for anything we need. My family, my extended family, her family, the 12 girls in our project care, ALL will be taken care of. And none of us feel like we’ve given up anything to get here.

She’s fine. We’re fine. Better than fine.

We’re excited to be chosen as vessels of hope to some precious young women who are desperate for a Savior. How cool is that?

I committed to diverting as much funding as possible to help this month. My first priority is to my family, which includes the 8 extra souls currently under our roof. But surely we can spare more? Sacrifice more? We’ve got this.

I could not be more inspired right now. Man, I need an “amen”! Can I get an “amen”???

 

Time for Colossians 3:23

It’s hard for us to know sometimes how to approach ministry needs. On the one hand, we DO trust that God will provide. And He does, as evidenced above.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to sit back and do nothing but wait for miracles to happen.

This is not what we’re taught to do through examples in scripture. Abraham had to climb the mountain without an alternate sacrifice for Isaac. Moses had to keep that staff raised before God parted the sea. Running from Saul was probably David’s best option to avoid being murdered. Noah must have had a million splinters from building that ridiculous boat. None of these examples is lacking personal action tied to trusting God.

We do our part in faith and God handles the heavy lifting. Always.

 

Breaking the chains of control

But … I’m not seeing much in the way of long-term planning in those examples. Maybe Moses was thinking, ok, we get through this water obstacle and tomorrow we’ll need a plan. You think before Noah boarded the ark, he had AutoCad drawings on the homestead he would build once the water retreated? Just in writing this, I’ve thought of a dozen more examples in scripture that echo this concept of trusting God in all things, from provision to planning, accompanied by the use of our gifts, talents, and abilities and 100% action.

At the risk of belaboring a point: PLANS ARE NOT BAD. Quite the opposite. We’re told that whatever we do, we are to work at it with all our heart as unto the Lord. That includes looking ahead and planning for success.

Plans just need to be used in the right context in ministry – as a tool and not as a substitute for trusting God. Consider David’s actions in 1 Chronicles 21, when he quit trusting God and instead focused on his own military prowess and plans. That one cost the lives of 70,000 men. (It’s a good read if you need a refresher.)

God seems to be quite intentional about the intricacies of this point. We plan from a position of trust, not as an alternative. And despite how we justify our control in our own reasoning, God knows the difference.

We have pages and pages of plans, budgets, policies, fundraising ideas, ministry focus, new project development strategies and the like for The Phoenix Alliance. But there’s not a single plan that isn’t kept on the altar, ready to sacrifice in order to stay focused on God’s purposes and not our own.

And if some people read that and think … “I could never support a ministry like this”, I have two things for you:

  1. I love you. I really do.
  2. I don’t need your money. And neither does God.

God is our provider, period. He might choose to provide through you, but if He does it’ll be because He wants to do something in YOUR life. He wants to continue to build His trust relationship with you. He wants you to experience a life fully dependent on Him and not on your own strength or understanding. He wants you to sacrifice.

 

True worship is sacrificial

I genuinely believe that God calls all of us to sacrifice in a way that isn’t comfortable. Wherever you send your hard-earned money or spend your valuable time, it should cost you something. Something real, something you notice. Something that makes you change plans you had previously made for yourself.

The amount is irrelevant. It was two mites for the widow (Luke 21:1-4). And yet, her faith brought her to a place in her relationship with the Lord that the rich who gave on that day would likely never experience. Trust. Real trust in the goodness of God’s perfect plan.

But we’re trying to run a non-profit ministry here. Is this really how I should be approaching things?

You know what? Yeah. It is. For us, it is.

I want to trust God in all things. I want our provision to forever be in His hands. I want to work really, really hard for His purposes. And I never want to worry about whether or not my family or my ministry will be taken care of. I want to be like our project manager, selling wedding rings without fear of the future.

I’m setting the stage for an adventure in faith. I’m trusting God with our Chiang Mai project manager. I’m trusting Him with our 12 rescue girls. I’m trusting Him with my family. And I’m inviting you all to hold me accountable to this.

If God chooses to bless us with a safety net of our own, I pray that we will continue to look toward His purposes alone and never be caught up in our  own goals or ambitions.

 

Meanwhile, in Thailand…

We would be remiss if we didn’t take action and let you know that we are praying for increased support for our Chiang Mai project. No, we don’t have everything wrapped up in a nice, neat marketing package right now.  But we have a long-term vision and we serve a great God who knows where this is headed. I’m good with that.

I don’t want you to be “sold” on the ministry of The Phoenix Alliance. I want you to take God’s hand and ask if this is a place where He would have you apply your personal, sacrificial worship. The answer to that question is entirely between you and the Lord, and it has zero impact on your relationship with us or our ministry.

I never want you to do something that God isn’t leading you to do. But I always want you to whatever God IS leading you to do.

 

Meanwhile, in America…

We have a growing team of incredibly skilled and Godly men and women spooling up to help with everything we’re doing right now. We have a dream-team board of directors that makes my head spin with possibilities. We have another dozen or so volunteers helping with various tasks. But so far we don’t have one single regular monthly supporter backing the ministry of The Phoenix Alliance. Not one.

I’m undeterred by that because today’s reality has zero bearing on God’s purposes. That said, it’s probably time for us to open the doors and see who might want to come in.

 

Behind Door Number One…

Over the coming weeks and months, you’ll start to see more from us with regard to our work in Chiang Mai and the many ways you might get involved.

Today, our greatest need is financial. If this is a ministry area you feel God has called you to serve, please pray about supporting our work in Chiang Mai. We need monthly supporters to keep the project going as well as one-time support to cover startup costs, the bulk of which are government-required expenses.

If you are one who knows us well enough to trust the process without the polish, we invite you to join the team immediately. For those who need more, great! You are a good steward of the resources God has given you! Your time will come soon enough, and we’ll be happy to have you on board if and when you join us.

The link below will take you to a dedicated giving page for our Chiang Mai project. Donations are tax-deductible and we are transferring 100% of what comes in directly to Chiang Mai expenses … no overhead/admin costs.

Donate Here

 

Don’t stop believing

The point of this blog post was not to build up to a big financial ask for Chiang Mai. But it’s true that it’s important part of what we’re doing, and as I said we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about our need there.

But that’s not why I wrote this.

I desperately want to encourage you to take your faith to the next level. Somewhere that will make even some of your Christian friends think you’ve gone a bit wacky.

Over the past three years I have learned so much about what it means to follow Jesus completely. And I still have a long, long way to go. My eyes have been opened to the amazing possibilities that exist when we just let go of our expectations and fully open our hearts to God’s leading.

Those of you who have known me for a long time know that I am passionate about sharing the things I love with others. And I love growing my relationship with my Lord.

I’ve spent most of my life doing “good things”. Serving in the church, worship ministry, leading small groups, etc. All very good things. But at least for me personally, I was never genuinely open to the big, scary, life-changing “best things” that God had in store for me. I had my career, by stuff, my very comfortable life. And I loved that life.

When we decided to start praying about the possibility of leaving all of that behind to serve overseas, I had a few concerns. It took me 20 years to get where I was with my career. Leaving could set me back a decade at least. We finally got ourselves out of debt and had (shock) positive net worth. Leaving could be financially devastating, erasing all that hard-earned stability.

I am thankful beyond words for the opportunity God gave us to trust him in a different kind of life. If Bill Gates offered to put me back where I was three years ago with 10 times the net worth I had then, there’s zero chance I would accept. Zero. I would never choose to walk away from the ministry God has called me to. Because it’s a better and more fulfilling life than I ever could have created on my own. And it has absolutely nothing to do with stuff or net worth or personal accomplishments, but everything to do with my relationship with my Creator.

That, dear friends, is the point of this blog post. I want to encourage you to follow your Savior into the scary places. The decisions that seem nutty to your friends and family. The ones that God places on your heart.

He will never force you to love Him or choose to trust Him with your life. But He does ask. Every one of us is asked, every one of us has the opportunity to walk into the unknown by saying “yes” to the seemingly illogical things God lays before us.

If you have never done anything that makes you nervous about losing the things you have built, I have a challenge for you:

 

Ask God to bless you with an opportunity to know Him on that level.

I promise you there is nothing, absolutely nothing in this world that compares with a life of total dependence on Him.

Walk off the cliff.

Trust God completely.

Sell the ring.

 

6 Comments

  1. Amen!!! 😉 Well said. Thank you for sharing your heart. You are so very right! I’m praying that God will move on hearts and that they would be obedient to that. Man!! May the Lord continue to bless you guys and provide all you need. He promises our “daily bread” not our monthly bread… that is so hard to wait on some times, but He is so faithful ❤️ I’ll help when I can and pray for the rest.

  2. What is the value of 12 lives? I think Ethan has expressed it well and I pray that others are led to support you in your work. When we drove out of our driveway to go to the Philippines I felt like I was walking off a cliff into the unknown, but I knew we were in God’s hands. Prayers for you as you keep stepping out in faith.

Leave a Reply to Kimberly Wheeler Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *