July 13, 2009

Interpreting Grace in Bangkok

Sunday in Bangkok was a memorable day, full of worship, the celebration of doctoral achievement of Thawesak Mahachavaroj, and extended table fellowship. I had the privilege of preaching at the oldest Chinese Baptist Church in Thailand, founded only about 37 years after the Judsons arrived in Myanmar (Burma). The sanctuary was literally packed with young and old, and another level of the building provided overflow seating--and the opportunity for further translation. My sermon was translated into Thai and Chinese, so the miracle of Pentecost occurred one again. "Each heard in their own language." My sentences were short and direct (amazing some of my colleagues and students); my literary allusions to American authors were deleted; and extended quotations scrapped on the spot. (Actually, I had sent the sermon ahead a couple of weeks ago to give my interpreters a head start.) I enjoy attempting to bridge linguistic barriers with non-verbal communication and familiar biblical narratives; however, self-deprecating, dry humor--which too often intrudes into my sermons--does not work quite as well. Maybe what is really funny is my attempt! Yet, the grace-full story of God's history with humanity transcends our attempts at "functionally equivalent" translation, for which I am immensely grateful.
Old hymns, very old Gospel hymns, were a part of the service.  I had not sung "Faith is the Victory" since childhood. Verses two and four would not come to mind (we always skipped the third at FBC Muskogee), so I sang the first one three times hoping none of my colleagues might notice. Of course, "How Great Thou Art" is a favorite around the world, and it was sung both in the morning and afternoon services. A part of the service included more contemporary music, and the congregation enthusiastically joined in with the praise band. The Maitrichit Church struggles, along with her sister Baptist churches in the States, with how to include the new without forsaking the old. There is a vibrancy to this congregation, in my judgment because of their faithful missional pursuits. They have started schools and homes for senior adults, they have planted churches, and they have funded mission trips and projects literally around the world. Gone are the days when we think of mission flowing from west to east; light is surely coming from the east.
Over 600 guests gathered mid-afternoon at the Christian Church of Thailand headquarters for the celebration service. Heads of varied mission and educational institutions offered greetings and commendation of the recipient of the Doctor of Divinity. Varied choirs added their excellent praise to the joyous occasion, especially the Bangkok Boys Choir. The choir had been scheduled to travel to South Korea for a choir contest, but the outbreak of swine flu had prevented it. We were blessed to hear this finely tuned group of young men. When it came time to offer the doctoral hood and seminary medallion to  Dr. Thawesak, my faculty and administrative colleagues came to the platform to participate in this commendation of life achievement. My brief message was drawn from Galatians 6:9 which reads: "And let us not grow weary in well-going, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart." Clearly, Dr. Thawesak has not ceased striving to serve the Living Christ; he has not grown weary in well doing. Thus, the service was a celebration of harvest. The congregation gathered to bear witness to the fruit of his life as he was reaping some well-deserved honor for a life well-lived.
And then, another feast was prepared for the sixty tables of guests. Suckling pig is a favorite course, and at this serving (the third time we had sampled this delicacy), I received one of the ears. I promptly took it to Mr. Townsend, the seminary Treasurer, and requested that he make a silk purse out of it for me. I am still waiting...
This morning my part of the travelers from Central returned to Hong Kong from Bangkok; seven others traveled on to Myanmar to begin classes there. Please pray for these treasured colleagues and students as they serve with Christian brothers and sisters at Myanmar Institute of Theology. What a privilege it is to enlarge our understanding of God's great mission in the world by being in Southeast Asia.
Molly T. Marshall, Ph.D.

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