A Baptist seminary president, a Buddhist monk, and a Catholic nun walked into a bar...OK, this time it wasn’t a bar, it was a monastery, but it’s not the beginning of a bad joke. Those three kinds of people actually came together in a beautiful moment during our Doctor of Ministry cohort's cross-cultural experience in Myanmar.
We were visiting the Wai Lu Wun monastic center, a beautiful, technologically advanced place of learning, healing, and spiritual practice about 2 hours outside of Yangon. This place is a dream become reality for Dr. Ashin, the Buddhist monk who is its founder and director. We had come to an open space in the middle of the center where at least 150 elementary school age children had gathered for their morning routine. Kids as young as 5 stood perfectly still with hands folded as our group listened to Dr. Ashin tell us about this monastic center which, among other things, educates children who can't afford an education elsewhere. Dr. Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, was there with us, and around that time, a Catholic nun walked over and greeted us. I quickly grabbed my camera to capture a shot of this interfaith trio smiling and talking. It was a beautiful sight, a sight I wish I saw more often. The Catholic nun shared that she and her other sisters commonly have a presence here, because of the many common goals they share with this Buddhist community.
Things are very different when you’re in the minority. In Myanmar, Christians make up about 5% of the population. They have learned, by necessity, how to play nice. In such a context, the Christian life looks much more like the sending of the disciples in Luke 10:1-9 who went out proclaiming the kingdom as dependent strangers, relying on the houses of peace and the hospitality and resources of those with whom they lived. Being in the minority requires you to serve with humility, share resources, and cooperate in your shared areas of concern. As several Myanmar Christian leaders told us, they must listen first, serve second, and preach last. This is much closer to the way of faith that Jesus modeled than the power grabbing and boundary marking that is too common among American Christians. Burmese Christians understand better than I the meaning of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 3: "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God."
Being in the minority makes you ask questions like, "How do I sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:4). One of the reasons I knew the trip would be meaningful is because it was my first international trip to a country in which Christians are a minority. Not only was I out of place culturally (something I had experienced before), I was also out of place religiously. Myanmar, in many respects, was a difficult experience, and for that reason, it was a profoundly spiritual experience. In many respects, I was "lost." I was unfamiliar with the rules and norms. I was unfamiliar with the food (and didn't like half of it). I was unfamiliar with the language. I quickly missed my home and family. Perhaps even more significantly, I did not share many assumptions and norms with the people I was around. David Augsburger writes, “Anyone who only knows one culture knows no culture.” You realize how much that you take for granted is not a universal norm. In our case studies with other Christian leaders, before delving into the content of our case studies, we first had to take the time to find common ground and explain things that normally wouldn't have to be explained.
This kind of "getting lost" is something Barbara Brown Taylor calls a spiritual practice. In An Altar in the World, she writes, “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.” “Even if the odds were against you, there is something holy in this moment of knowing just how perishable you are.” I am convinced that it's in experiences like this that God shapes us and we become truly spiritual. We don’t become spiritual during our bedside prayer for patience but when God answers that prayer by giving us a practice session the next day. And we don't necessarily find God in the familiar and comfortable but in the real experience of needing God and having to depend on others. I'm thankful to Central Seminary, the Luce Foundation, and all others for making this trip possible and facilitating this experience that cannot be simulated. You must jump in with both feet, and I'm grateful for this cross-cultural learning requirement that forced me to do it.