Friday, June 02, 2006

489: Take-offs, Touchdowns, and Wal-Mart Religion

And so, here I am, at long last, in Thailand. Months of e-mails, thoughts, and much too little prayer began their culmination with a short plane ride from Phoenix to San Francisco, a "short" plane ride from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and a short plane ride from Hong Kong to Bangkok. After taking a few wrong turns in the Bangkok airport, I finally met up with my supervisors, Rick and Cooky Kuter, and began my journeys in Thailand.

The Kuters live in Chon Buri, which is about an hour away from Bangkok. The majority of my time (or at least, the largest block of time), will be spent in what is essentially the same town that has a different name about ten minutes down the road, Bang Saen. In this town, I have a rented one-room apartment, with a bathroom, balcony, mini-fridge, and television on which to watch World Cup matches. It's a nice place, and I'm particularly stoked about its proximity to the essentials (resturants and grocery stores) and the perks (the beach and a movie theater), but most importantly, to my primary assignment: Burapha University.

Burapha (pronounced PAHH not PHAH) University has not, to the Kuter's knowledge, been strategically engaged by Christians. This is where Ohm and I come in. Ohm is the son of a Thai pastor from the south, and will begin his studies there when they enter their new semester, June 12. The plan is simple: make friends and tell them about Jesus. The implementation of the plan is where we get to get "strategery." The current strategy I've been thinking over isn't much more complicated than make friends and tell them about Jesus, and will just probably involve lots of prayer and lots of conversations. I'm stoked out of my mind about the chance to think missiologically though.

Other things are definitely going to be big on the agenda. I'm goin to get the chance to see other parts of the nation and do other missionary tasks, including helping at a medical clinic in a small town/village and assisting a youth group from Virginia when they come out to evangelize and teach English. I've already decided that these youth are going to be my little buddies, that I'm going to be that "mega super cool awesome young adult missionary's sidekick" that you always encounter when you go on a mission trip. (To get the full force of the quotation-marked phrase, one needs to hear it in the voice of Neil goldman from Family Guy.) My summer will end in the second most important city in the nation, the northern city of Chiang Mai.

But anyway, yesterday was my arrival, and this morning, I woke up in Asia for the first time in some time. My time thus far has been essentially spent hanging out, learning bits and pieces about Thai culture, some Thai phrases and so forth. Basically, I've spent the time learning what it's like being a missionary, in ways that I might detail at a later date. Probably the most prolific experience came earlier today, while shopping at a store called Lotus, which is essentially an Asian Wal-Mart Supercenter.

I was looking at some items on an aisle that had paper/picnic products when I turned around and saw a package of candles marked "Lucky." They weren't the scented votive type employed for odor masking in the U.S., they were plain candles, somewhat like the candles one might see at a Christmas Eve candle light service, at least the ones I grew up attending. Next to the candles was a value pack of incense, and next to incense was a package of small faux flower garlands. These were items for worship, offerings to present before the spirit housed in the shrine on your property, for nearly every Buddhist Thai home (i.e. 95-99% of all homes in the nation), has a relatively ornate spirit house on their property, to which sacrifices are made. A few minutes later, on another aisle, I noticed the nicely packaged Buddhas one could buy to place in a personal shrine. Here was religion, available at your nearby neighborhood Wal-Mart clone, and make no mistake, these were no trinkets, these were not nick-nacks. These Buddhas, candles, and flowers were part and parcel with the spiritual darkness the Thai are plagued by. These things keep them enslaved as cogs in the machine of karma, doing good works in hope of a better rebirth.

A few minutes ago, while writing this post, it hit me just how similar this aspect of Buddhism is to American Christianity: as it were, one buys it at a store. The only difference is to the Thai Buddhists (and other people with animistic tendencies and orientations), this owns their life. It must be noted that it does not change their life for the better or make them better people, but it owns their life. In America, Christianity just owns Sunday mornings, and occaisonally, Wednesday night, but to the accusation of both Thai and American, salvation cannot be bought for cheap, and even the offerings of the most extravagently faithful Buddhist are ultimately cheap, because God values the material value of the entire planet as less than the cost of a single human soul. No, this is what the gospel costs:

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sales everything he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:44-45)

"'If you want to be perfect,' Jesus said to him, 'go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.'" (Matthew 19:21)

"Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, 'If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)

The gospel costs everything, and we (my inclusive way of saying "I") hold it so cheap. My friends, this must not be. In the words of the band Copeland, we must "fall in love and hold nothing back." May it be so in all of us.


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