We arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, this afternoon, spent an hour or so at the hotel pool, and then quickly went to experience the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The main Pagoda is 100 meters tall, is made up of thousands of solid gold plates worth $250M. The very tip is a 10 inch by 2 foot orb of gold covered with diamonds rubies, imperial jade and sapphires. I have no idea how much all of these gems are valued at, but it’s got to be outrageous. The diamond at the top: 76 karats. We were fortunate enough to be there at sunset, and the glow of the sun on the western face of the Pagoda was absolutely gorgeous.
The main pagoda – the 100 meter high gold one – is surrounded by hundreds of smaller pagodas each one with a different Buddha statue underneath. These are gifts from private donors.
And surrounding these smaller pagodas are people.
People are pouring water on the Buddhas. People are lighting incense and burning candles. People are ringing giant bells with big wooden jousting rods. It’s a majorly ritualized system of honoring Buddha and gaining recognition for the good deeds they’ve done.
I’m not sure the people would themselves say that they were “worshipping” Buddha – he isn’t considered a deity, he was a real person who lived 2500 years ago and achieved “enlightenment” – but to my eyes, that’s exactly what it looked like. Worship. Worship is essentially expression praise and adoration to something or someone else, right? When we bow before something, we’re posturing ourselves to praise another.
Anyway. That’s what we did last night. It was one of the most foreign experiences of my life. And I’m still trying to process it this morning.
I don’t have a lot of time, but I want to mention another takeaway for myself before I wrap this thing up.
Two nights ago, we were at dinner in Bangkok with the head of Bangkok Christian College, and he started talking about how highly esteemed they view missionaries in their culture. They get tax breaks and perks and half price transportation among other things. He asked our group whether any of us were considering becoming missionaries. My response was essentially…
And I felt guilty about that quick response at first. I felt like coming on this experience I ought to feel a call toward cross-cultural missions of some sort. But I don’t. To be honest, I do not feel burdened to share the gospel in other countries, far off lands or distant cultures. I just dot feel that is my calling as a part of God’s Mission.
Until I was at the Pagoda last night and saw some middle school aged kids participating in worship. And it broke my heart more than anything else so far this week.
These kids are in their prime years for determining their faith trajectory over the rest of their life. The decisions these adolescents make at this point in their life is likely going to hold for the rest of their life. Every day they get further from these formational years, the more unlikely it is that they will pursue anything other than the faith tradition they adopted as teens.
They’re asking “Who am I?” and “What am I about?”…and here they are finding the answers to those questions in Buddhism.
And it tore me up inside.
I wanted to smile at them and tell them that my God loves them and made them in his Image. That they were created by Love to be Love to others. I wanted to encourage them that there was another man who lived 2000 years ago who wasn’t just a man, but was also God himself, incarnate. And who calls us something so much larger than just “enlightenment”.
The major difference I’ve noticed between Buddhism and Christianity so far: Hope.
The life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus brings us into a Story of hope for this world. Buddhism acknowledges that there is brokenness and difficulty in the world too, but rather than entering it to bring hope to the world, the Buddha simply overcame it mentally. There is nothing to look forward to or live for or hope in.
And when I look at a middle school kid, I see hope.
Hope abounds in adolescence.
I see a life that is primed to be shaped in the way of Christ. I see a kid seeking answers to life’s riddles. Who am I? Where do I belong? What I I to be about? How am I unique?
And it broke my heart today to see these teenagers finding these answers in something other than my Creator.
So do I want to be a cross-cultural missionary? Absolutely not. But instead,I continue to be called to “the trenches” of youth ministry. I’m called to the bafflingly wonderful culture of adolescents. Their distant world is where I belong in God’s Mission, and I’m thankful to have had that confirmed again in my life. To remember why I do what I do. Because I love my God, and I love middle schoolers, and I love introducing the two.
Okay time for breakfast. See you all tomorrow.