I arrived back in Winnipeg after a double Wednesday. Travelling across the International Dateline takes away one day travelling west and gives it back travelling east. Either way, it makes for a long journey. My body isn’t sure that time it is, but at least the weather here is not extremely cold so the re-entry into winter wasn’t so bad.
I’ve had some time to think about my experience in Thailand and Cambodia and what I learned.
The first lesson is about God’s Spirit and the power of His Word. In both countries I saw how Christians, responding to God’s love in Christ reach out to their communities spontaneously—from the pastors in Phnom Penh who work with children in the garbage dump, to a pastor in Thailand who interrupts the traffic of young women headed for the streets of Bangkok. They simply saw the need and responded in faith. There were no committee discussions, task force investigations or budget discussions. They had no idea who would fund the work; but God did! He moved the hearts of men and women on the other side of the world to provide financial support. We have similar needs and similar outreach opportunities in Canada. And we don’t have to look halfway around the world for funding. Maybe we are too willing to let the government do the compassionate work of the church!
The second lesson relates to culture. Southeast Asia is more than 97 percent Buddhist—and that is in name only. A close look at the spirituality would show a veneer of Buddhism over layers of animism, and Hinduism, particularly in Thailand. The Christians know they are outnumbered, yet they faithfully attend worship, study God’s Word and find ways to make their presence visible. For them, to be a Christian sets them at odds with their culture. Many find themselves alone because their families have disowned them for turning their back on their culture. On the other hand, some families are intrigued with the Christian faith because they see the difference Christ has made in the lives of their loved ones. After coming to faith in Christ, one young man stopped stealing money for gambling from his father. And his father noticed and appreciated the change. He is still not a believer, but that time may soon come!
This minority status evokes a passion for the Gospel that is a hallmark of new believers and a new church. We who have grown up Christian and lived our lives in the church world often become complacent, even apathetic. We don’t always notice the signs of spiritual battle surrounding us. In Thailand, you can go 10 meters down any road without seeing a spirit house with a fresh offering or a Buddhist Wat or monk.
So much of our culture is equally heathen, just not as obvious. The danger we face is contented Christianity.
My third reflection on my Southeast Asia experience is how much we don’t ‘get’ when we read the Bible. Essentially, the Bible is an ‘Eastern’ book. It comes from a culture that is not ours, yet through God’s Spirit it still speaks to our Western minds. For the Eastern mind, it says so much more. This came to mind when I was preparing for the planning session with the Takuapa church. During a discussion with a long-time observer of Thai culture, I discovered that the concept of planning two or three years down the road is completely foreign. The culture is very much day-to-day. This reminded me of Jesus’ words: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt. 6:34).
Our Western rationalism has also robbed us of understanding the ongoing battle waging in the spiritual realm. When you are face-to-face with Buddhist temples, monks chanting and people living in fear of evil spirits, Paul’s words about our battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) become real. Eastern Christians understand this. Western Christians explain it all away.
Finally, I was reminded of the global nature of God’s family. Whether in Thailand or Cambodia or Canada, God’s love in Christ and His Word unifies us and His people are all different colours, shapes and sizes. On Sunday during the service, I joined about a dozen other believers in Takuapa, Thailand at the Lord’s Table. If given the chance, I couldn’t hold a conversation with them, or read their translation of the Bible, but I could share the reality of God’s forgiveness and strengthening found in the Holy Communion. We are brothers and sisters, thousands of kilometers apart, but united by Christ.