Life among the pagodas
I don’t cry easily. But for the first two weeks I visited Burma, I was in a state of continual meltdown.
Within hours of landing in Yangon (Burma’s largest city), I was overwhelmed with depression. Not only was this place so very different from my home (and I might add, over 100 degrees and humid) but it felt hopeless to me; the trash everywhere, the blood-like betelnut* spit all along the sidewalks and in the corners of every stairwell, the smell of sewer in every other city block. Climbing to the eighth floor of the building where I was to stay only solidified that feeling of darkness. I looked out from my air-conditioned surroundings, at the dank, mildew covered buildings that surrounded my own, and my heart continued to drop. I hated being so high up, looking down on the poverty around me.
By my fourth day in Yangon, I was bursting into tears every time I got away from people. The sounds of three foreign languages was exhausting; it took even less language ability to discern that some folks were just making fun of me. The attention I garnered being one very blonde head taller than the rest of this Asian country was fun, but it was countered by the reality that life in Burma as a Westerner is life in a very small fishbowl. Choosing to live here would mean choosing to be a continual spectacle. I understood that in theory months before I visited, but to feel such keen attention every moment is not something I could have learned in a travel guide.
“I love you, but I hate it here,” I confessed to Jim, blowing my nose in a clean pair of his underwear (the only tissue available at the moment). I really wished he didn’t feel called to Myanmar, but I didn’t tell him so.
“How much of the of the time do you absolutely hate it here?” I asked him.
“Ehhhhh,” he cocked his head and looked out the window for a second. “Probably 30 percent of the time.”
“Like two days of the week?”
“Yup, about that.”
So far I’d hated it part of Monday, and all of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There had been no “honeymoon period” of infatuation with Burma. This was looking to be a long, long life. I couldn’t help but feel a bit miffed at all the folks who speak of travel with only a romantic gleam in their eyes.
The dirt, loneliness and nightmares I experienced in my visit; the thought of saying goodbye to folks at home who might pass away while I am gone; the reality of being a woman in a man’s culture; I was getting an obedience preview, and I didn’t like it. I knew I could do well here, but a life of dwelling like perpetual campers, consuming dubious food and water and constantly being the fool and foreign; I just didn’t want to be that uncomfortable. (In my selfishness, it never occurred to me at the time: Jesus had done each and every one of these things in order to call me into his kingdom.)
Fast forwarding to the end of my second week in Burma, I was finally miserable enough to admit that a good deal of my depression was stemming from my own heart. I felt far from God, and I blamed it on Burma, instead of being honest. God’s word, so timeless and so applicable, came as a well posed question, as it did to one runaway prophet so long ago: “Do you do well to be [as you are]?” I knew I did poorly.
I realized things weren’t going to change unless I owned my unwillingness to obey. So, under a clear night sky in Jim’s little town of Sittwe, I confessed, and I found out that David wasn’t kidding when he said that God takes away our strength when we refuse to confess: the things that caused me so much misery in the beginning of my visit to Burma faded into non-issues after that point.
Let me tell you, your circumstances do not dictate your ability to follow Christ; but your attitude does. And this is where I’ll incorporate thankfulness, since this is the thanksgiving season. If I look back on the times where my attitude has taken a divergent path, it’s easy to trace that divergence to the point where I stopped worshipping God and began instead obsessing over my own circumstances.
I’m preaching to myself especially when I say, thankfulness should be our trademark! For the lack of thankfulness, the Israelites lost 3,000 of their people in one day. To engage in genuine thankfulness is to choose to enter a battlefield. It’s choosing to sing when you’d rather sleep, when breath must be taken by faith. Thankful worship is self-forgetfulness, it’s faithfulness when the music has stopped and there’s no one left to click “like” on your Facebook status. It opens our hearts to deeper communion with our Father. Thankfulness is a bridge over the swamps of legalism. We NEED to be thankful, because our souls forget God’s character otherwise.
But be aware, our enemy hates thankfulness. Thankful worship is the clear-eyed decision to declare God’s sovereignty on enemy soil. You are in a battle, but take heart and be brave in your thankfulness! When you praise him, you can do no better.