by Vicky Thomas
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.
By Pastor Tim Phillips
Note: These are edited comments from the January 19, 2015 Evergreen Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Celebration at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. It is printed here in celebration of African-American History Month.
When we were first talking about this gathering, it occurred to us that perhaps we should say a few words about why it is important for us, specifically, to be together on this day. And I thought immediately about being on an airplane. And the person in the seat next to me asks that dreaded question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Sisters and brothers, I confess that I am often tempted to lie because once someone finds out I am a pastor things get complicated.
But that’s not the worst of it because the next dreaded question is: “What kind?” I’m always tempted to say, “Well, I hope a good one.” But that’s not what they are asking. What they want to know is what kind as in the kind of denomination I serve. And when I say I am a Baptist, that’s when things get really complicated. Sorry to say, I’ve discovered that saying I’m an American Baptist doesn’t seem to help anything.
So this is what I have started to say when people ask me. I say I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist. And it’s amazing! Something clicks and the lights go on and they seem to get it.
I realize that saying I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist is shorthand. But it is also true. Dr. King’s home church, Ebenezer in Atlanta, is an American Baptist Church. But it’s more than that.
Our spiritual ancestors – John Smyth in England and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams in America – fought for freedom as a spiritual value. And our ancestors in what became the Northern Baptist Convention believed that if freedom was a spiritual value it, should be a social value too. So they said they would not approve as a missionary anyone who owned slaves. Many of them were already working in the abolition movement. That’s when many of the southern churches left and formed their own convention.
But for us, the pattern was already set. And along came Helen Barrett Montgomery, one of the first women ever elected to lead a national denomination – our denomination. She believed that freedom was a spiritual and a social value so she worked for economic justice and the education of women.
And along came Walter Rauschenbusch, pastor and professor at one of our great theological institutions who came to be known as the ‘father of the social gospel’ because he saw the social dimensions of the liberating good news of Jesus. Dr. King himself wrote that Walter Rauschenbusch had a big impact on his theological understanding.
So I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
And I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because he was a preacher at our 1964 convention where he also received one of the first of our denomination’s highest honors for peace – The Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award. And our publication department printed copies of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with a study guide and distributed to all the churches, encouraging them to talk about racial justice.
So I say I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because the great Jitsuo Morikawa – a Japanese-American who knew something about the social value of freedom having spent time in an internment camp during WWII. Dr. Morikowa helped to continue the legacy of Dr. King among us as a pastor and teacher and national leader of our denomination.
So I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist because Dr. King knew that, in the work for love and justice and peace, you need to be free to make partnerships with all kinds of people – other Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Muslims and Hindus – because this work is too big for any one of us alone.
So, if you ask me, I’ll say that I am a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist.
It’s true. It is shorthand. But it’s shorthand for a long history. It’s shorthand but it’s shorthand for a tall order -- to live into that dream of a Beloved Community; which sounds lovely but we, of all people, know how hard that work is.
So, the next time someone asks you what kind of believer – and what kind of Baptist – you are, you might consider joining me in saying truthfully and proudly: “Well, I’m a Martin Luther King kind of Baptist” and then see what happens to them ... and to you!
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist