In Myanmar

18 07 2009

I have not blogged for a few days because internet connections have been sporadic, but I wanted to jot a few words because these last few days in Myanmar have been incredible rich.

Bob Johnson and I have been leading seminars at the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT).

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My seminar focuses on the Johannine writings, Gospel of John and Revelation.  There are seventeen students in the seminar.  It is a wonderful group of students, and even though we meet from 3:00 to 6:00 each afternoon and the students have already had classes all day, they are still eager and engaged.  It is quite an honor to be with these students.  The students are working on their MDiv and MTS degrees, and they come from many parts of Myanmar and from many different tribal groups.

We have experienced unprecedented hospitality from the folks of MIT.  They  have helped in making sure we are where we need to be and have everything that we need.  MIT is a thriving school with activities going day and night.  It is clear that the young people in this country have a passion for learning.

With the completion of this week’s classes, we have a break of week and will travel up country (north) to Mandalay and to some of the surrounding areas.  When we return, we will have one more week of classes.

Baptist life in Myanmar is characteristically vibrant.  There are over a million Baptist in this country in a total of 4,626 churches.   The Myanmar Baptist Convention is getting ready to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Baptist work in Myanmar (1813-2013).

Here is the view from my hotel room.

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The building in the background is the Shwedagon Pagoda.  It stands 326 feet high, and it is covered in gold.

My pre-reading for preparation for this trip noted that it was the rainy season, and the readings did not lie.  It was rained every day with the exception of one.  Most tourists avoid this time of year in visiting the country.

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Epistle 3, Sunday, 12 July 2009: On the Road to Myanmar

12 07 2009

Today was spent in attending the Maitrichit Chinese Baptist Church pictured below, and also in a celebration of the lay ministry of Thawesak Mahachavaroja, who Central awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree in May 2009.

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Two impressions come immediately to mind of the church service.  First, the worship service was very familiar.  With the exception of languages, Chinese and Thai, one could have been any many Baptist services in America.  The order of service was the same, announcements, prayers, sermon, and taking of the offering.  The songs were some of the popular ones I sang in the 1960s:  “Faith is a Victory,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Wonderful Words of Life.”  The arrangement of space had a familiar feel.  The pulpit was elevated and occupied the center of the platform.  The cross was the focus behind the pulpit, and the offering plates were on the center communion table.

It is clear that the church is a very vibrant community of believers in the heart of Bangkok and in the heart of Buddhism.  As one person told me, only 1% of the population is Christian.  Any it can be a challenge to get to church on a Sunday.  In the States, the road are nearly empty on a Sunday morning as one makes his or her way to worship; however, here every shop is open, the streets are jammed, and most worshippers live a long way from the church.  It is truly a sign of the Christians’ in Thailand commitment as they faithfully maneuver their way to worship on Sunday.

A second impression is related to the languages spoken in worship.  As the name of the church implies, it is a Chinese church here in Thailand.  The church is composed of mainly Thai, but many of them are naturalized citizens of Thailand or have had children born in this country.  However, strong Chinese roots continue.  The church is 40% Chinese speakers and 60% Thai.  So throughout the service, a translator is always going back and forth between the two languages.  Of course on our day, with Molly Marshall, President of Central Seminary, giving the sermon, a third language was added to the mix.  However, even more language was added, and of course from a New Testament perspective, this was of interest to me:  Aramaic.  The only language that united us all in worship was this ancient language of Jesus and the world of the New Testament.  Now granted there was only one word of Aramaic spoken, but it was one word we all knew and could say together:  Amen.  It seems appropriate word.  It is a word used 105 in the New Testament and is most frequent in the Gospels.

Ok—one last observation.  The church has wooden pews without pads, and I love it.

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I grew up with them, and there is something a bit more religious about sitting on a solid wooden pew.





Epistle 2, Saturday, 11 July 2009: On the Road to Myanmar

11 07 2009

Besides catching my breath today from yesterday’s travel, a group of about eight of us went to see “The Grand Palace.”  This palace is actually a complex of buildings built around the late 1700s.  It contains a royal residence, some government offices and especially noteworthy the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

What is most striking are the colors found in the architecture.  The vivid and bold colors capture an onlooker so that one’s eye is constantly taking in an array of bright and bold colors.  In fact, the style and construction may give an observer sensory overload.  The picture below gives a good example.

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Other interesting aspects on the grounds of the complex were the statues related to the myths associated with Buddha.  Many of the images/statues depict the combination of both animal and human figures together.  For Western eyes these images combining humans and birds or humans and lions, as the pictures note below, may appear grotesque.

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I am reminded, however, of the very interesting hybrids found in Revelation.  Particularly striking is the image in Revelation 9:7-10:   “In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.”

My sense is that this image would not strike Buddhists as that unusual or strange.  Finding points of connection are always helpful in dialogues with those of different traditions.





Epistle 1, July 9 and 10: On the Road to Myanmar

10 07 2009

I have arrived in Bangkok, and I am writing this blog entry after having finished 18 hours of air time and 7 hours of waiting around time.  I have been up for the last 30 hours.  Of course this seems exhausting, until one considers the time it took Adoniran Judson to get to Southeast Asia.  He left on February 19, 1812 and arrived June 12, 1812.  Four months!  This puts my 30 hours in perspective.  One should never complain about traveling today.  I always consider it a major magical that in less than 24 hours I have been in Kansas City, Chicago, Shanghai and finally Bangkok.

One interesting aspect of the trip was the concern over the Swine Flu.  Upon landing in Shanghai, we were not allowed to leave our seats until each person has his or her temperature taken.  On to the plane came two sets of technicians clothed like they were out of the science fiction movie.

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All you could see were their eyes.  They used lasers across our foreheads to check our temperatures.  If someone had an elevated temperature they then used a thermometer.  If that person failed, then he or she was quarantined immediately.  Evidently, I was a perfect 98.6 degrees.

One other thought struck me as I was waiting in the Shanghai Airport:  the bilingual signs.  The photo below is an example.

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It reminded me of the first-century (and what does remind me in some way about that pivotal point in history).  The world of the NT was bilingual with Latin and Greek.  While the sign illustrates the official government language of China is Chinese, the language that will speak to most people is English.  In the ancient world it was Greek.  Even though Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic and lived far the centers of culture and power, he probably knew enough Greek to get by.

For the next two days, Saturday and Sunday, we will be in Bangkok.  We will have the opportunity to see some of the sights of this ever expanding city and to see some of the Baptist work that is happening.