Myanmar – Day 4

Today (Friday) was my birthday. Moving on.

We visited another pagoda this morning with another buddha sitting in the center. I’m already desensitized to seeing pagodas and buddhas. I’m certain I’ve seen hundreds of both in the two days I’ve been here so far. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all, right?

While we were at the pagoda, I wasn’t very interested in observing more people kneeling and praying at the feet of another buddha, so, instead, I walked to the edge of the area and watched a group of small children chasing each other around. They were giggling and playing and squealing and laughing and doing all the things that children do.

It felt surprisingly normal.

Kids are kids wherever you go. Whether in Myanmar or Kansas City or Europe or Uranus, kids are always the same. We all start the same. We giggle and play and squeal and laugh and do all the things that children do.

It felt right and unbroken.

I may have even shed a tear.

I turned around and faced the buddha behind me and watched two different groups of people engage the statue. First, the parents of these kids were doing their rituals and chanting their prayers. Second, all the Americans who were there to sightsee were snapping photos and asking questions about what the heck was going on.

Two completely different sets of adults. Little in common. Drastically different beliefs, rituals, and values. Buddhism is technically atheistic – it’s a way of life and a philosophy, not a belief in the divine or spiritual – so there was a chasm of belief in a higher power too.

What a juxtaposition: kids being the same wherever you go, and adults who couldn’t be more different.

I felt like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, not wanting the little ones to grow up. I wanted to protect them from losing their innocence. Keep them from moving forward into the way of life their parents were certainly going to teach them.

From the pagoda, we visited a Buddhist monastery around the corner. In Myanmar, once boys reach 7 or 8 years old, they are able to enroll in the monastic education. They leave their homes to become monks, and this brings great honor to their families back home. They memorize the Buddhist “scriptures” – basically just commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha, with perhaps some oral tradition involved as well – and when they’re 20 years old, they get to decide whether they want to take vows and become a monk for the rest of their adulthood.

So before they’re even teenagers, they decide to commit to a certain way of life so they can bring honor to their family. I mean, if I was a parent, I’d encourage my son to pursue a monastic life too. Practically speaking, Buddhism is all about merit. Doing good deeds to rack up merit in your earthly life. It’s not about the other. It’s about gaining honor yourself.

We got to “observe” the monk kids eating lunch together, which felt extremely uncomfortable – a bunch of Americans standing around snapping photos and taking video of these kids in matching maroon robes.

I noticed a couple of the youngest kids peeking at us during their prayers and gesturing to their Buddhies* and giggling under their breath. I was reminded of the kids at the pagoda earlier. It was a tiny glimpse of childhood shining through. But they weren’t kids anymore. They were monks and were expected to live a certain way.

* – Okay. This is hilarious. And potentially insensitive, but c’mon.

My friend Sylvester asked one of the head monks what they got to do for recreation. The monk responded that they spent their free time going to homes in their community to beg for food. They don’t get to play or laugh or chase each other anymore. Those things don’t bring honor to a family.

What is even sadder is that if kids don’t make it into a monastery, they typically end up street vending to help support their families. Tomorrow we are supposed to be going to a ministry that lets kids play for an hour a day to take a break from selling trinkets and be kids again. I am fairly certain it will be the highlight of my trip.

In youth ministry, I talk with my colleagues all the time about “faith ownership” – reaching adolescence and claiming ones faith for their own. It’s not the faith of the family or the pastor or friends – it’s their own.

Maybe the family values and cultural dynamics here don’t support that way of thinking. It breaks my heart to watch kids be removed from the life they experience as little ones only to be forced into a “religion” they didn’t choose for themselves.
Especially a religion that is atheistic and feels so jumbled and backwards.

Life is not about gaining merit for yourself. It’s about loving the Creator and loving others.

Life is not about emptying oneself in the present. It’s about living abundantly in love in the present while having hope in the future.

I see little Buddhist kids and I see all the hope in the world. And I see Buddhist teenagers and I see that hope fading. And I see Buddhist adults and I see little hope whatsoever.

Not to say that Christianity in America has it all figured out and is perfect in every way, but when a way of life is so blatantly opposed to God’s ways, it breaks my heart.

Hoping for a more hopeful tomorrow.

-apc.

Myanmar – Day 3

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…

Eh. No.

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.

-apc.

Pilgrimage to Myanmar & Thailand

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Next Monday, I am traveling to Bangkok, Thailand, and on to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), with my cohort at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Central has a partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, and we will be pilgrimaging there to study cross-cultural ministry in a drastically different setting from our own.

As I understand it, the name Myanmar was given to the country when it came under military rule many years ago, but the people there continue to call it by it’s former name, Burma. So those names can be used interchangeably most of the time. For those who are not geographically savvy, Myanmar is situated east of India and northwest of Thailand on the north edge of the Indian Ocean. Here’s a map:

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I hardly know anything about this culture, so I’ll be learning and processing a lot of new information and experiences. Part of my course is to post a handful of blogs about my experiences and takeaways, so over the next couple weeks, you’ll see this space and all my social media outlets flooded with content about this experience.

So, if you’re interested in following along with me, be sure to check back here soon and follow me on Instagram/Twitter: @adampaulcooper.

Supposedly the Wifi is spotty over there, so we’ll see how that goes. Regardless, all my posts will probably come while everyone in the US is sleeping, so don’t be shocked if you wake up to a barrage of updates from me.

Please keep our whole group in your prayers next week. We return to the states on 3/17.

-apc.