After completing my work on a new educational initiative in Yangon, Myanmar, I traveled north to the ancient city of Bagan. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, kings and wealthy patrons constructed over 2000 pagodas in a 19 square mile area. Most of these structures are still standing, a testament to the methods and the preserving aridity of the desert.
Meandering through this living archaeological museum, I wondered why not build just a few grand ones rather than structures of varied proportion as far as the eye can see. Our guide suggested that it was for the development of Buddhism, a religion initially transplanted from India.
I had visited before, but the religious significance of the monuments sunk in more deeply as we walked barefoot through the many temples, which house historic statues of The Buddha. These remain working shrines, as the faithful place before them food, water, flowers, and other material gifts.
I confess that I get a little twitchy when I see this, and my mind goes to Paul’s long discussion in 1 Corinthians 8 (a lectionary reading for this coming Sunday) about food consecrated to heathen deities. His main point is that mature Christians learn patient love in dealing with the faith of others, and together we must affirm “there is one God . . . from whom all being comes, toward whom we move” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
One of my spiritual practices is to demonstrate respect for the lived religion of others, even when I do not understand the insider’s experience of a discrete tradition. I am amazed at the energy and personal sacrifice so many devote to their worship, which seems to bathe the whole of life. I wonder how a Buddhist would experience what we Christians express in our patterns of worship and service. They might see us as rather casual about our faith, relegating our practice to a portion of Sunday.
When Adoniram Judson first saw these pagodas in Bagan, he predicted that not one would be left standing as the Gospel triumphed over false belief. Obviously that did not happen! As he entered into respectful dialogue with intellectual Buddhists, he not only learned how deeply imbedded this faith was in the culture, but also how many areas of agreement could be explored. And his work is not finished!
This is what evangelism and mission mean to me in the Myanmar context: to give faithful witness to God whom I have come to know in Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, to those of a different religion, and then listen intently; and to collaborate in leadership development to strengthen the Christian presence there, which stubbornly persists at about 6% of the population.
Only the God from whom all being comes knows the future of these differing pathways, all seeking to engage the holy and be reconciled before the Divine and with others. May it be so.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.