International travel is the surest way to get me to open my eyes and think about things. I am so grateful for the gift of these last few weeks of travel in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Though I will be back among you by the time this is printed, here are three thumbnail sketches of my journey with little epiphanies for the season.
Motorbikes and Stepping out in Faith
To a foreigner in Hanoi, crossing the street is an adventure sport. Motorbikes, bicycles, pedi-cabs and an increasing number of cars jam both tiny alleys and multi-lane avenues. There seems to be no break in the traffic when it is safe to cross. The few traffic lights are mere suggestions and motorbikes regularly drive against the normal flow of traffic.
Contrary to logic, the only way to cross a sea of motorbikes is to just step off the curb, take baby steps and continue forward ever so slowly. You must let the traffic flow around you. You are not really in control of your safety; it is an act of faith that the motorbikes will go around you...and they do. Unlike crossing an American street where “I have the right of way”, in Vietnam no such right is recognized. The social contract between walker and motorbike necessitates that both parties move in a slow dance.
Epiphany: In my faith life, I need to step off the curb and just move forward slowly. I may not see exactly how I will make it to the other side, but I will get there.
Welcoming the Stranger
The Catholic Church in Pleiku (Vietnam) is packed for Saturday night mass. I grab a 6 “ plastic stool available to late comers, move to the front of the church, and sit with many others viewing the service through an open doorway.
The transept and first 20 pews are filled with about 200 children and youth, all wearing different colored scarves which distinguish their Sunday school class. Parents and others are at the back or outside. I am uncertain whether I have stumbled on a special service or perhaps this is a regular thing, but this concentration of young voices belting out the liturgy is thrilling. Every one seems to be singing and even the 4 year-olds need only an occasional nod from the nuns to focus.
Though I can’t understand a word, the flow of the mass is familiar and it is enough to be a part of such an enthusiastic community of faith. The ethnomusicologist in me rejoices that the scales and harmonies (mostly octaves with occasional fourths) are of Vietnamese origin rather than Latin. I try to hum along.
And then I notice the screen up front. The words to the liturgy are projected on a big screen. Suddenly my experience changes; I understand no more than I did moments earlier, but now I can try to mumble along. I feel a part of this wonderful body of Christ. I feel welcomed.
Epiphany: This is not an advertisement for the use of screens in worship. None of the children I saw singing were looking at the screen. Rather, it reminded me that the moment we think everyone knows what to do in worship is the moment we need to be most aware of the things we can do to bring everyone into fuller participation and communion.y: In my faith life, I need to step off the curb and just move forward slowly. I may not see exactly how I will make it to the other side, but I will get there.
It’s Only Bricks and Mortar
One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Southeast Asia was that when I travelled here for three years in the 1980s, Cambodia was still suffering the devastation of the killing fields and it wasn’t wise to visit.
I have always found that great spiritual sites move me deeply...the great cathedrals of Europe, Machu Picchu in Peru, Uluru in Australia, Borobudur in Java, the Mayan temples of Guatemala. So, Angkor Wat in Cambodia has exerted a siren’s call over the last thirty years.
After dumping our bags at the hotel, we headed immediately to Angkor Wat, the granddaddy of all the temples in the area. The crowds fade before the majesty of the design. They layout of the complex is both awe-inspiring and intimate. One feels simultaneously dwarfed and comforted. What a testament to the greatness of human achievement!
Epiphany: Yet, amidst the hawking of tour books and the constant camera flashes, worshippers still offer thanks before statues of Buddha set in niches throughout the temple. Nuns quietly set out offerings and light incense. This is the faith that got the temples built; the rest is just bricks and mortar.