Are there spirits all around?

A lady came rushing up to me needing help. She wanted someone with spiritual power to pray against the demonic.

The spiritual world is wreaking havoc on our little neighborhood in the eyes of this woman. As Westerners, we neglect the spiritual realm as affecting our physical world. In Thailand, people believe spirits are in play with everything. If they are not appeased through spirit houses, offerings and other traditional rituals, the spirits can bring turmoil into this world…thus people in Thailand live in fear.

The fear was all over this woman. Here is how the story went.

I was taking our puppy for her morning walk when this Thai lady came up to me saying, pastor, pastor. This was a twist to my morning ritual. I should say my rather new morning ritual the past couple months. Laguna, our Golden Retriever, helps motivate me up early for some strong prayer time. Oh boy, she loves to get up early.

I have begun using these walks to pray over our street. The morning walks give me an opportunity to pray for the church members who live on this street as well as those on this street that God is drawing to know him. The middle-aged, Thai lady came to me noticeably concerned. I thought, how does she know I am a pastor? Thailand never ceases to amaze me.

She told me that things have been difficult on this street and implored me to pray for the people. I told her that I was praying, but she insisted that I pray more. As she explained, I felt God confirming in me that he is watching over the street. To summarize, the concerned woman wanted me to know that basically, the happiness index of the street had gone down, jobs were not as good, problems in the lives of the people and so on. All of this was due to the evil spirits, she explained.

I stopped with her right there at that moment and prayed intentionally that god would be present with us in power.

The spiritual strongholds fighting to maintain their ground and prevent God’s kingdom from coming in are persistent. But God will win. I believe God wants to unleash his kingdom power on this city, beginning with our street in Bangkok in the near future. I continue to pray for an outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

When you observe problems in your community, do you blame evil spirits or circumstances…or something else?

Not Overlooking Any Possible Solution (A look at traditional religion)

As the heavy rains pounded Thailand this year causing abnormally high water levels, each person in government has done what they can to help the affected areas. However, in Bangkok, the governor has come under some criticism as the people of Bangkok think he is not doing enough.

As the waters continue to slowly flow downhill toward the basin of the nation, which happens to be the capitol city, people keep wondering why the governor did what he did last week. Last week, he performed an ancient ceremony to appease the spirits of water. He came out to sacrifice the food and offerings to the spirit to ask for protection and help in this time of crisis. In his mind, this ceremony would prevent his city from the calamity coming its way. This same calamity has already hit the ancient capitol of Thailand, Ayutaya, with its ancient temples now collapsing. (On a side note: The water levels in Ayutaya just north of Bangkok have yet to recede, and the broken ancient temples bring into question the worldview of many in Thailand. The flood has caused new cracks within the Thai identity.)

No crack stands out more than the Bangkok governor performing a ceremony to prevent the water from coming. One of my Thai friends told me that this is a 100 year-old ceremony that is outdated and unnecessary. He went on to say, the people in Bangkok were frustrated with the governor for performing the ceremony since we have technology in Thailand now.

The Thai people, rich in their history with spirit worship and appeasing the unseen forces of nature, have collided with the forces of science and reason. They are frustrated that their leadership takes steps to appease the spirits rather than measures to reinforce flood barriers and work with the agencies that are channeling the water around the city.

As we minister in Thailand, we need to be aware of the shift in their culture…but for now, in the midst of this crisis, we simply pray for the people and show them authentically the love of God.

How would you react if your government started their response to a natural disaster with an ancient animistic ceremony?

A Leadership Parable

I want to share a great folk tale from Thailand with implications on leadership. Thai parents tell their children this story to teach them the right way to lead.

Once upon a time a ferocious wind named Saladon met a gentle breeze named Pattaya. The two started talking and the blustery loudmouth, Saladon, declared he could do anything he wanted as he was such a strong wind. Everyone gets out of his way and does what he wants. Saladon went on to say he takes care of business with his mighty strength and sheer force of willpower.

Pattaya replied in wonderment, I am not a strong wind like you, because I choose to refreshing and gentle. I don’t like to use all of my strength. To which, Saladon retorted, why would you do that? Why would you choose to be weak?

Pattaya calmly responded, I get what I want.

However, Saladon wasn’t satisfied, he proclaimed, he could get anything and do anything he wanted, and urged his new friend to be more assertive.

Pattaya thought for a moment not convinced that Saladon’s approach was ideal. Then Pattaya got an idea. The smoothed ocean breeze came up with a challenge for Saladon.

He asked, you can do anything, right?

Saladon replied, of course.

Anything? Because I am thinking of one thing that might be difficult for you.

Yes, Anything, Saladon angrily said as his voice began to rise.

Pattaya kept pouring gas on the fire and stirred up Saladon. Well, I have this one thing that might challenge your claims.

Saladon said, whatever it is, I can do it.

Ummm, I am not sure I want to tell you, because I don’t want you to say no if you can’t do it, Pattaya said.

Now, a fuming Saladon insisted he could do it no matter what it was.

Pattaya then gave the challenge. He pointed out the monkeys that love to climb the trees in the jungle along the beaches. He challenged Saladon to make the monkeys get out of the trees. Saladon confidently  took the challenge.

He thought this was easy as he was all worked up and ready to go. He gathered all of his force and began to whirl a wind so strong the trees began to blow. Leaves blew off the trees and the scared monkeys grabbed onto the trees with all their might. They held on not knowing what else to do. Saladon was just getting started when he began blowing with as much fury as he could. The trees began to bend sideways, but the monkeys kept holding on as tight as they were afraid to let go and fall to the ground.

Saladon blew his mighty wind as long as he could, but after about thirty minutes of frantic wind gusts, the monkeys still clung to the trees.

Pattaya cracked a sly smile across his face. Saladon not wanting to admit his shortcoming said if I can’t do that, there is no way a small wind like you could get them out of the trees. With a small smile still across his face and now a twinkle in his eye, Pattaya said it’s my turn.

When the warm, soft breeze blew across the faces of the monkeys, they began to feel more comfortable and relaxed. Pattaya kept blowing gently and bringing the afternoon breeze in from the shore. The monkeys thought they were getting so relaxed, so they decided to climb down and curl up for a nap.

Pattaya won the challenge and showed that he could get as much done and more with his style of wind. Saladon stormed off in a huff.

And when the parents tell their children the story, they explain that good leaders get more done by being gentle and compassionate.

Signs on the Doorframe

At first the signs above our door seemed innocuous. Apparently, they were the opposite of that. We asked what they meant, and were told that they were just Chinese sayings. We thought our landlord just liked Chinese stuff.

I guess we should have known better. Rarely do people hang something at their property without a cause. People in Thailand are clued into the spiritual world. Because of folk beliefs that lay under the surface in this Buddhist worldview, the Thai people work to have prosperity come and be protected from evil. To do this, they work to appease spirits and welcome other spirits.

This Sunday, we had a Bible study at our home when one of our friends had to wait at our door a short while waiting for me to answer the door. He then took the time to look closely, having glanced only quickly before, at the Chinese writing above our door. Our friend emphatically told me they were Chinese black spirits mentioned in the signs. Our owner wanted to invite prosperity to her house, so she paid homage to these spirits from the Chinese spiritual world.

Upon our friends warning, we pulled off the signs. He tore them in half and threw them in the trash while pronouncing a prayer to God.

We probably all pass by things that are not as harmless as we think, yet how much more so in cultures different than ours. Not that other cultures carry a greater amount of harmful objects and practices, but we are less familiar with the meanings placed on the forms that we pass every day in a new culture. It was that second glace, that long pause, that allowed my friend to notice the meanings behind those symbols. It is amazing how pausing and thinking twice about common objects around us can show us their deeper meanings. What have you realized had a deeper meaning after taking time to notice?

Dreams and Their Meanings

How often do you wake up and remember your dreams? When I have bad dreams, I almost always wake up and remember them vividly. Thankfully I don’t have very many of those. I dream, but I don’t wake up and remember them very often.

The other day, in Thai class, we learned about the Thai beliefs of dreams and their meanings. Now I remember learning in psychology class that dreams often come out of your subconscious and can give you insight about what is on your mind. In addition to that, God sometimes uses dreams to speak to his people.

The Thais have many beliefs regarding dreams. For example, dreaming about water is good luck while dreaming about a dog means that someone is thinking evil of you. There are also different meanings based on what day you had the dream and at what time of the night.

After studying all about the different meanings she gave a personal example and asked what is the proper Christian response. She said that Thais believe that if a tooth falls out in a dream, it means that someone in your family or a close friend will get sick and possibly die soon. She said that even though she is a Christian she still believes this because every time she has this dream, someone got sick soon after. What should a Christian believe about these things, and how should a missionary respond if a Thai person has that dream and is afraid. I responded that the first response should be to pray a prayer of protection over their family. At a later time, you can teach that Christians don’t have to live in fear of our dreams or other things because God is all-mighty.

This got me thinking though, does God use this belief to speak to the Thai Christians and warn them? Or is it just a long-term belief that the Thais are afraid of and are scared to let go of when they are a Christian?

Rain in the Windows

Two solutions to the same problem often arise when different cultures cross paths. This past Sunday, we saw a simple example of two groups of people each wanting a different solution.

The story begins at the church service with no air conditioning in the hottest season of Bangkok. Thai people often flock to the Malls and other places with air-conditioning they can borrow since they don’t want to use their own electricity, if they even have air-conditioning at their home. The church building was not only without air-conditioning, all the lights were out too as the city shut down power on the street for routine maintenance. Our Home Chapel held church service ‘unplugged’.

Now, the real conflict, if never really coming to the surface, presented when the rain started to pour. Two things completely the opposite began to happen. The Westerners welcomed the cool breeze that came with the rain while the Thai people quickly ran to close all the windows. We asked them to keep the windows open for the airflow, but perhaps unwittingly caused them to think we were super weird.

You see Thai people have a folk belief that if your hair gets wet, you will get sick.

By asking to leave the windows open, it would leave everyone in the room at risk for a cold or sickness. I didn’t realize it until I was standing near the window with Ellie helping keep her cool. A Thai person came over and said to be careful of the rain. At that moment, I thought the obvious, to watch out for my daughter’s head to not get to soaked by the rain blowing in the window. About thirty minutes later it clicked. That’s why they wanted to close the windows I mused to myself.

Sometimes being culturally sensitive takes a lot of time, and even if you know better, it takes time to realize what is happening. To the local people the appropriate cultural norms and actions come instantly without a thought. To us as outsiders working to identify with them on the inside, right response takes a moment sometimes.

Red Fanta Offered to the Spirits

Even as Buddhism covers the religious landscape of Thailand, many folk beliefs hang on in the minds of the Thai people. Last year, I looked at numerous traditional practices of the Thai people that mixed in with the universal beliefs of Buddhism such as spirit houses, house blessing ceremonies, lucky numbers and days, beliefs about birth and death among various other practices.

One thing in all of my observations that eluded me in the practices surrounding appeasing the spirits that live in the spirit houses was why people give them Red Fanta.

Folk beliefs help people make sense of their world. They explain the happenings of everyday life like why a young man dies in a freak accident, or another person succeeds on an exam. They help people deal with the spiritual elements of their world, and that drives many people to construct ways of appeasing the spirits around them. For Thai people, they believe that when they build a house on a lot of land, they need to build a small structure for the displaced spirit to live. They put these houses on the corner of their property. Spirit houses are a part of the unique and colorful landscape of Thailand.

Not only do Thai people build a home for their displaced spirit who watches over them, but they provide food and drink for the spirits on a daily basis. The spirits feed off of the aroma and flavors of the offerings left for them. Thai people put a good deal of effort into what they give at their spirit house as they don’t want to offend or disrespect that spirit.

Now back to the point of Red Fanta. Why this special flavor of Fanta? When we walk by various spirit houses, we always notice the flavor of Red. Is it because the Thais think that the spirits love that flavor more than others? I know I am not a fan, but maybe it is an acquired taste.

I thought there must be a reason behind why Red is the flavor even if it is not easy to find the answer. As we are studying more of the folk beliefs in our Thai language and culture classes, the books tell how many people don’t know why they practice one custom or another, but just that their parents and grandparents did it. But in a recent lesson, we came across the answer to the Red Fanta mystery.

Red is the color of blood…not that the spirits are just out for blood, but blood is the source of life. When Thai people offer the Red Fanta, they believe they are giving a drink to the spirits that offers them life and vitality.

As we study folk beliefs in Thailand again, I am constantly thinking of the different legends and stories we have to explain circumstances in our life…what are some of the interesting beliefs you see around you…