Ninety percent of Thai people identify as Buddhist. The remaining ten percent is composed of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Part of my time spent here in Chiang Mai is dedicated to helping locals learn English, and one of my pupils just happens to be a part of that ten percent. He asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I was caught completely off-guard. I have been confirmed in the Christian church, yes, and, despite my protests, I regularly went to church when I was young; however, during my confirmation speech I openly admitted to my skepticism of Christianity in front of the entire congregation, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I went to church, so I ended up stammering for a few seconds before landing on a panicked “Yes, I am a Christian.”
This student, I’ll call him JR, is so incredibly genuine and kind. I was afraid I would crush his spirits if I told him I wasn’t a Christian. I realize now that he wouldn’t have cared, but his delight in my supposed piety was worth the half-truth. He was so over-joyed that he invited me to his church for Sunday morning service, and so it was that at nine o’clock on Sunday morning I was clinging onto the back of a motor scooter, hungover, and on my way to church.
We arrived at JR’s church after a tense fifteen minute scooter ride through the streets of Chiang Mai, and were greeted by a host of friendly Thai people. Before the service, the congregation gathered in a little coffee house built on the grounds of the church. We sat and chatted with a few locals over toast and coffee, and a feeling that I couldn’t shake, an initially unknown sensation that only grew stronger as the day went on, began to creep into my consciousness.
The service itself was much like a church service at home, albeit with a few variations. We started out by singing. No hymns, though. They sang the Thai equivalent of Christian soft rock. I was thankfully spared from any obligation to join in because I can’t speak Thai, let alone sing in it. After a few rousing tunes we all sat down and the pastor began to speak. The pastor was a slick looking man in his late twenties. Everything about him was clean-cut and presentable, as if he had just stepped out of an ad for suits in GQ magazine. There’s a real power in the suit here. People respect a professional looking man, even if the suit is a bit too small and the socks don’t match the shoes.
The pastor would speak a few words and stop, and in the pause the congregation clapped and turned to look at someone. I had a sense of what was going on here, but Billy was baffled when the two of us were in the eyes of the entire church and given white roses, a welcome gift and sign of good will.
The congregation was then asked to stand and walk about the church to greet everyone. The human side of me acknowledged the value of such an activity, but the New England yankee in me was appalled. I’ve often wondered whether I’m more human or yankee, and perhaps the matter resolved itself in that moment, for I got up and walked about the church, bowing and smiling to these people who looked so genuinely happy to see me. It might take some getting used to, though, this being human thing.
Communion was next, which surprised me. At my church back home communion occurs near the end of the service. The order of events didn’t seem to matter, which I’m noticing is a trend here in Thailand. Our favorite dish so far has been mango with sticky rice. It’s so simple: a fresh mango, peeled and sliced, paired with a generous helping of sticky rice that has been soaked in a warm syrup of coconut cream, cane sugar, and a dash of salt. Everyday we would patiently await the evening, a time we thought acceptable to eat a desert like mango sticky rice. Then we were told that Thai people eat anything at anytime. You want mango sticky rice for breakfast? Go for it. As with food, so with the church service. You want communion right in the beginning? Sure, why not?
After communion, more singing and videos about the grace of God. The service was of course in Thai, but they gave us headphones that were hooked up to a microphone, into which the best English speaker in the community translated. To translate from Thai to English seems like a fiercely difficult task. Earlier, the girl who was translating held a conversation with Billy and I in perfect English, but now, having to both keep up with and translate the rapid Thai, the English came in staggered flashes. This made listening to the sermon, an already laborious task to begin with, nearly impossible.
Getting only occasional snatches of the sermon, I let my mind wander. Tired and day dreaming, I felt like I was at home, and that creeping sensation I had felt earlier resolved itself in the revelation that a church service in Thailand is much the same as a church service at home. Even the people are similar. Generally older, full of affection and faith, they line the pews of churches the world over, and in the back, the people who can no longer sit: the cripples.
Why do the cripples, the people broken in both body and spirit, make their slow and steady way to Christ? It’s the love, I decided then. Psalm 136:26 reads “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so broken and to read these lines, lines that say, despite all ugliness, suffering, and sin, you are loved no matter what.
I see many hale and healthy westerners here to practice Buddhism. They tell me about how the world is full of suffering, and I want to know: suffering for whom? They’re healthy enough to get here and hike into the mountains for meditation retreats, and they want to talk about suffering? Broken people, in body and mind, know that the world is full of suffering. They don’t need the Buddha or anyone else to remind them.
I can’t speak for these broken people, though. I don’t know what it’s like to be downtrodden. It’s therefore cheap of me to speculate on how they feel about suffering. All I know is that I haven’t seen any wheel chairs in the Buddhist temples I’ve passed.
The service ended shortly after the sermon, and everyone was invited to have lunch together in the common room. Twenty baht (about seventy cents) bought you a heaping plate of pad thai, with a free second helping to boot. This too made me feel like I was at my church back home. At my church back home there were always snacks after the service, earning my church the nick name “the First Church of Food.”
We left after that full meal and some delightful conversation, and as we left I thought about the only snippet of the sermon I caught. It was something about becoming a better Christian with every passing day. I was just as much a Christian walking in that church as I was leaving, that is to say, not really much of a Christian at all.
I’m a Christian in the way that a tree stump is a dinner table. I sin regularly and don’t always feel bad about it. I think some of the Bible is far-fetched, and I don’t like going to church.
Still, with the right sized meal and a little ingenuity, you can use a tree stump as a dinner table.