Observations of Traditional Religion Day 18

When someone becomes a Christian from a traditional religion, they have to decide what to do with their rituals, symbols and amulets. In Thailand, a new Christian has taken long time thinking about this change before they become a Christian. They will have asked all the questions they can think to ask before becoming a Christian.

From their worldview, they see who they are born as who they will always be. Being Thai means being Buddhist, so they have a lot to struggle and wrestle with before accepting Jesus as their Lord. Rarely, do non-Christians question the truth or question the doctrines. They don’t know what to do with their practices. They don’t know how their family will take the news. They don’t know how to change into what seems like a foreign religion.

When a Thai person prays to accept Jesus, they do so with a group of friends in the church. It is a community event as the group comes around them. After praying for Jesus to be in their life, if they were wearing an amulet, they take it off. Sometimes this then becomes a trade for a necklace with a cross. They want a powerful symbol showing they now belong to the family of God. A symbol of following Jesus.

After they decide to follow Jesus, they learn how to walk with Jesus. Some of their former practices can be looked at in a new light as worshipping the Holy Spirit, seeking God’s goodness and so on. They have to learn not to see these as new and better forms of magic, but an expression of their new faith and devotion to God as their Lord.

With amulets and crosses, they need to know that the cross is not a new amulet that will give greater protection in life. They need to know the cross merely symbolizes their new faith. They can see the world through their same lens as a Thai person and have symbols of invisible spiritual truths. They know the symbols don’t carry the power, but represent the power they believe in.

Attention Getter

We all live our lives everyday. We get used to seeing certain things and how things are done. Living in a foreign country is no different, that is after we have adjusted to living here.

Bangkok is a city of extremes. There are very wealthy people who go shopping in malls that would rival the ritziest malls in the world. There are also poor people who wear dirty, ratty old clothes and beg on the street. There are many people in between these two extremes but I am just painting the picture for you. You have to get use to the fact that there are beggars holding babies and cripples sitting on the side of the road or bridge everywhere you go, even outside the fancy malls, but that is not why I am writing today.

Yesterday I was riding the bus when something caught my attention and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. At one bus stop, the bus stopped for a much longer time than normal. I glanced up to see to an open road and wondered why we were not going as I didn’t see anyone hurrying off the bus. I then saw a man slowly descend the bus stairs to go home from work. He was wearing a work uniform which told me that he had a job. The thing that struck me was that he was crippled; one of his legs was shriveled and hanging limp. What caught my attention was that he didn’t have crutches to walk with. Instead, he had one long pole that was considerably taller than him. He had wrapped his bad leg around this pole and clung to it with both hands. It was by walking with his good leg and using the pole that he “walked.”

It broke my heart to see the man forced to use a pole because better equipment was unavailable to him. I wanted to jump off the bus and help him, but he was already gone. I know that I will likely never see him again, but it will be hard to forget him. I was also overjoyed to see that despite his disability, he was living life and even had a job, which is rare for disabled people in Thailand. So while my heart broke for him, I wanted to cheer him on and congratulate him.

Observations of Traditional Religion Day 17

How does someone choose their amulet? Is it style, symbol or something more? Usually, the symbol determines what makes for a strong amulet of protection or power. However, from time to time, some one will win a battle or escape death in a miraculous way, and their amulet will become popular.

The masses scramble and push to get the same amulet he was wearing. The demand for this amulet rises to record highs.

As Thailand has been in the middle of ongoing political posturing and even fighting the past several years, we have seen the different practices in this series play out by the party leaders. We have seen the people use curses, fortune tellers and lucky symbols to help their cause. When one leader escaped a mob-style hit last year, his amulet rose to record demand. As he was driving in his armor-plated car, two motorcycles rode up next his car. They pulled their M-16’s from behind their backs and unloaded more than 100 rounds into the car penetrating most of the armor. The leader of the yellow shirt movement was wounded, but as he quickly crawled to the floor and protected himself as best he could, most of the bullets missed him.  Note to self; be careful when two motorcycles pull up slowly next to me. Second note, the middle of the day is a as good of a time for a mob hit in public view, so don’t get on the wrong side of the mafia.

The next day after the political figure released a statement saying he was okay, everyone clamored to find out what amulet he was wearing. It was front page news.

People want to find a way to block evil, calamity and trouble from destroying their life. They look to things that seem superstitious to a westerner. They see them as more than lucky, but as carrying power. To Thai people, amulets are real and more than a lucky rabbit’s foot to an American or four-leaf clover to the Irish. As Christians, are there things we use in our life to help us succeed? Do we wear lucky underwear for the playoff baseball game? Do we wear a power-tie to the big meeting? Okay, that might be stretching it. Do we ever look for signs from God when we should just trust him?

Observations of Traditional Religion Day 16

Traditional religions answer the existential questions of everyday life such as how to get success, power, avoid evil and calamity that will destroy your success. These religions seek to answer why, not how, something happened to a particular person at a particular time. Why does a child die, or a strong young man fall off a ladder. It is not the question of how the ladder broke, but a question asking why at this time or with this person on the ladder. The questions of life that plague us daily, like how to have a good life and provide for your family are answered by these religions as well.

For the next few posts, I will focus on one practice that helps bring power and protection to the people, amulets. Amulets are more than a symbol of power or protection. People believe they carry an essence of power within the object. Thai people love to wear amulets to ward off evil spirits, protect against harm and to bring good luck.  Thai people usually wear the amulet around their neck, often on a cord or string, something inconspicuous. They place the amulet under their shirt. We have even seen people wear amulets tied around their waists.

When we play games with our students about clothes and accessories, we will ask who is wearing a t-shirt, shorts, sandals or necklace. Then many of the students will reach to pull out the necklace bearing their amulet.

Camillian Home

What happens in a society where a disabled child is seen as a curse? They become more than a burden to a family. The family avoids being near them if possible not wanting to have the curse touch them any more than necessary. When a child has a severe mental disability, paralysis, blindness or deafness, the problem is not solved just by learning how to take care of the child, because there is no desire to do so. These children become more than overlooked in society. Often they are left to fend for themselves. Sometimes, they get picked up by the mafia and used to beg for syndicated crime bosses.

Yet, here is one place the church has stepped into the void to demonstrate the unconditional love of Jesus in a tangible way.  A couple of days ago, we were invited to see one such foundation, Camillian House,  run by Catholics caring for the overlooked and underappreciated in society. A friend from our first English Clinic recently started working for this foundation. She has become so excited with her new job and seeing what people are doing for these precious children.

The foundation has 9 houses throughout Thailand caring for disabled children and children with HIV/AIDS. At the house we visited, we saw more than two dozen children with blindness, deafness, autism and various other physical or mental impairments learning to live life and function in society. One autistic girl had never been around people for years before coming to this house. She was scared by anyone new, and now she is starting to function among her friends at this house.

We saw the rooms where they study and other rooms for rehabilitation. The most difficult cases of children with multiple disabilities require round-the-clock care. They have people watching them in shifts morning and night.

They even had a play area for the children which was getting plenty of usage as we visited during their free-time. It didn’t take much coaxing to get me to jump on the trampoline with Lat, the 13-year-old blind boy that has a zest for life I can relate to.

As we visited, we saw how caring for the most despised in a society begins to change how people view life. These people are showing that each life is valuable to God.

The Flying Monk

People look to follow religious leaders who have power. The leaders look for ways to demonstrate power.

In the Golden Triangle, a region along the border of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos named for the loads of money brought in from opium plants, there is a monk of whose reputation has grown to that of legend. He is simply known as the flying monk. People have claimed to see him flying quite high in the sky. His reputation has gathered many followers and interested onlookers. Here is a video of him in the air.

Wrong Step

One wrong step, one misfortune, can completely unravel a day.

The ruin of my day began by running out of the house quickly to meet some friends who were visiting from out of town, Paul and Lori Vernon. On this particular day, I was not only meeting friends, but also teaching two English classes, and then flying to Singapore. I put my computer into the computer bag and made sure I had the accessories as well. The last thing I did was put the plug into the top of the compartment covered by a Velcro flap. I then grabbed my suitcase and slipped on my converse shoes as I headed out the door.

As I half walked, half ran down the street one of my shoes felt extra tight. I bent down to check out what was wrong and I realized I had put one brown shoe and one green shoe on that morning. I knew this because the green converse are a size smaller than my brown ones. I groaned as I turned to head back to my apartment and change shoes. If I had not been going to Singapore that night, I probably would have kept wearing 2 different shoes and laughed about it with everyone and the coming problem would have been averted.

I double checked in the lobby by asking the security guard what color my shoes were. He chuckled as he told me I had the wrong shoes on. After switching my right shoe, I headed back to the center to catch up with our friends before teaching. I greeted them and then Paul and I went to watch the NCAA tournament on my computer. When I pulled my computer out, I found that my plug was missing. I panicked wondering if somehow the plug had dropped out of the bag as I bent over to check my shoes. If I lean over too far there is a possibility the bag could open and allow something to slide out.

So I decided to retrace my path to the center. Paul agreed to walk with me and be my eyes. We didn’t see the plug lying on the ground as we passed by the place where I discovered I was wearing the wrong shoes. Neither did I find the plug in my apartment. I was flustered.

I went back to the center with a sinking feeling wishing I knew how to find the plug. I didn’t have time to take the hour trip downtown to buy a new plug before the flight. My mind kept wondering to what I would do, distracting me from meaningful conversation with my friends.

Just before lunch would be ready, I convinced Paul to go one more time to look again as I didn’t want to have to tell my wife I had lost the plug and needed to buy one again. (We have bought 3 plugs in the last 2 months for faulty wiring). Maybe it was in my apartment, and we just didn’t see it the first time. Perhaps I didn’t really put it in my bag, or maybe it really did fall out, but where, and why didn’t I hear it hit the ground right next to me as I leaned way down to touch my shoes?

It wasn’t in the room. I couldn’t find it. It was lost. I was devastated.

Crestfallen, Paul and I stepped back into the elevator to go back for lunch. I decided to take a long shot and ask the security guard if he saw anything or heard anyone who found it. He seemed to know what I was talking about and took us over to talk with the apartment manager. He had seen someone walk in with a plug, but he couldn’t remember the exact room number they lived in on the second floor. The apartment manager could read the concern on my face, so she said she would check the people on the second floor and call me later. Paul and I walked back to join the others for lunch.

As I started eating lunch, I held onto a thread of hope that the security guard was right and saw my cord walking through the lobby in the hands of strangers. At lunch, I shared my misery with my wife and the others on our team. Everyone was in disbelief that the cord could have gone missing in such a short space. While we were discussing this, the apartment manager called to say they had my computer cord. Elated, I quickly walked back to our apartment building for the fourth time that day…with the thought that this might not be the right cord hanging over my head. It was the right one.

Thank God for my security guard paying attention to people coming and going. He saw the person who picked up my plug, likely to sell on the black market.

In life, we often take one wrong step that throws our whole day off. We can allow that one mistake to destroy an entire day. Sometimes, that mistake leads to more problems or difficulty and stress.

We all need that security guard keeping an eye out for us. We all need each other to watch our back, or open bag. On the other hand, we can watch our neighbor’s back. When they drop their cord, we can be right there to pick it up and keep a minor mess up from turning into a catastrophe.

The remedy to a bad day can stick with us for the rest of the week. I know I was buzzing on the amazing fact that my plug was gone and found again. I couldn’t believe that the person who found it was going into my apartment or that the security guard was actually watching and noticing everything that was happening at our apartment building that day. God made the little things work together to help me find my cord. He doesn’t do this magically, but uses people to fulfill his workings. We get to play a role as God’s hands and feet in this world as we touch others.

When have you had a similar situation happen in your life, something small undoing a perfectly good day? Second, have you had an opportunity to save some one’s day from ending up in the drain?