I said goodbye to the group I helped lead for two weeks, in Pnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. They all said that the mission encounter trip was a good experience. That was the key, they said. They hadn’t just seen the sights. They actually spent a day in a Hmong village on a mountain called Doi Inthanon in Thailand. They shared their lives and faith with the people, saw how the locals grew flowers for the Thai market in Chiang Mai, and sampled authentic Hmong cuisine with eight church members.
They helped the members of Thailand’s Nong Bua Sam Church get the grounds ready for Christmas, bargained with the vendors at the Anusan night market in Chiang Mai, rode elephants in the jungle at Maesa and walked the Killing Fields in Cambodia. It was a real experience, something you can’t get by reading a book or watching a documentary on TV.
And yet, as I made my way, alone now, by bus and train to Bangkok and then to Chiang Mai, I realized that the group never got beyond being tourists. They got their feet wet, true, but they never left the shallow end of the pool, as it were. They spent a day with Hmong people, but if they didn’t like the local food, they knew they could have a hamburger back at the four star hotel at which we were staying.
Some only learned how to say thank you and good morning in Thai, Laotian and Cambodian in the two weeks they were there. They had leaders who translated for them, who asked directions of the locals and made sure the daily plans went smoothly. They never got in the water to the point where they were in over their heads. Not only did they stay in the shallow end, they knew they could climb up on the deck if the water got too cold, or sit in the shade of an umbrella if the tropical sun got too hot.
In contrast, I was now alone in Thailand for six weeks, and, as it turned out, I was often in over my head. It was often a situation in which I had to sink or swim.
Communication was, of course, a problem. Especially in small towns off the beaten tourist path, like Phayao and Lampang. Two different times it took 15 minutes for the tuk tuk driver or the motorcycle taxi to figure out where I wanted to go. With his limited English and my limited Thai and hand signals, we just could not communicate. So, he ran off and got a woman who spoke some English but she couldn’t understand me either. Finally, he found a man who could read the Roman script we use, and he said, in Thai,”He wants to go to Mae Nam Wang, the Wang River.”
“Kao jai, kao jai,” said the tuk tuk driver.
“That’s what I had said all along,” I muttered to myself under my breath, but obviously I hadn’t. Thai is a tonal language, and I have the hardest time getting the tones right.
I got lost several times. When I ordered food at a mom-and-pop restaurant I was never sure what I would be getting. Thai food is delicious, but after six weeks now of green curry, kow soy, lad na and rotee, I sometimes find myself fantasizing about the pizza I’m going to devour at Jimmy’s as soon as I get back. And there’s the ever-present anxiety for an old guy like me of finding out if the Buddhist temple I’m exploring has a toilet.
The challenges have been never-ending. I was definitely beyond the tourist stage. I was in the deep end of the pool.
But, the rewards have been manifold: Most of the time, ordinary people have been both friendly and helpful, the food has been out of this world, I’ve had chats with Buddhist monks, and I’ve seen beautiful mountain scenery and experienced the excitement of discovery.
I finally did get to the Wang River. It was there, while sitting at a restaurant on the river and watching the sun go down, that I decided that those of us who are religious often behave like tourists. We use the rituals, rules and doctrine to remain in the shallow end of the pool. We use religion as a way of protecting ourselves from getting in over our head with God.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis tells the story of four children who were sent to live in the country during the bombing of London so they would be safe. As it turned out, however, they found themselves in another world, in water over their heads.
As the children hid in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from the wicked witch who wanted to kill them, Mr. Beaver made an announcement: “I have wonderful news. Aslan is coming.”
“Who is Aslan?” the children asked.
“Why, he’s a lion,” Mr. Beaver replied.
“A lion! Is he safe?”
“No, he’s not safe,” Mr. Beaver answered, “But he’s good.”
God, in my experience, is not safe. God, as it were, keeps pushing me to venture beyond the safety of religion. To a place where the rituals are safe and I feel like I know what I’m doing. Into a world where he is in charge and I often feel vulnerable and dependent-like an everlasting learner.
This isn’t a knock on religion. In my opinion, we need religion in order to function as a community and to pass this experience we have with God onto the next generation.
The trick, as my adventure in Thailand reminded me, is to never equate going through religious motions with the real thing, with a relationship with a Being who demands that He be in control and not us.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.