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By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
Nicky and M dropped me off at Kampan’s house and told me that that evening they would be taking me to a Christmas fellowship event including five small Christian churches in their area. The five churches do this every year a week before Christmas. I was tired and laid down for an hour nap. As I fell asleep I looked forward to the gathering and tried to imagine would it would be like.
I confess to having idealized fantasies of Christians in Thailand. Some of my prejudice for them is based on eighteen years of interacting with Thais. For the most part they have treated me as an honored guest. At the lunches Nong Bua Sam Church has after worship, they always have a special seat for me, and the women keep bringing me food—enough for two people. Usually they find a place in the service when Pastor Holmes can “greet” them, even when I’d been with them three Sundays in a row.
Part of it, however, is what I imagine must be true about a 1% minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist land. In my mind they are like the early Christians—a persecuted minority whose suffering makes them strong in faith, steadfast in their love for each other and grateful for the spiritual security they have in the midst of the changes and chances of life.
That’s how religious reformers throughout the history of the Christian church tend to describe what they are trying to do—to move church practice back to the way it was in the beginning.
A sweet dream. I was going to be with real Christians. Three days into what I had planned to be a solitary venture into a foreign culture where I would be tested, I found myself being taken care of by old friends and getting ready to be with several hundred other Christians. So much for my plans, but maybe what I would be experiencing would be even better than what I had planned.
The church hosting the event was a thirty minute drive from “M and Kampan’s Guesthouse.” The soi (lane) was blocked off to automobile traffic, and people were milling around with one hand holding bowls of fried rice and orange sodas in the other. M led me to a front row seat in the area where the program would take place an hour later and brought me a plate full of food, after which he ran off to join Nicky who was leading a youth activity.
I didn’t mind being left alone. The food was not so spicy that farang (foreigners) could not enjoy it. I had my camera, and as far as I could see there was only one non-Thai family in attendance besides me. This was the real thing, maybe better than what I was looking for, a good taste of what the early church had been like.
Disappointment began to set in when I noticed that the praise band was wearing red Santa Clause caps and playing Jingle Bells. It deepened when a church member came into view wearing a full Santa Clause outfit followed by a toddler dressed the same way.
I noticed that speakers were piled eight feet high on both sides of the stage, and when the program began, they cranked them up to at least half capacity which was 25% more than was comfortable for me.
I became encouraged when the program began with eight beautiful young women dressed in traditional silk costume and performing a classical dance to welcome the Christ child. Then, the host church proceeded to put on a Christmas pageant more impressive than anything we’d been able to pull back home. I would have preferred that the program be less technological and more purely Thai until it dawned on me that in 2010 this was authentically Thai. Maybe the program would turn out to be OK after all.
My lingering disappointment, however, turned to disillusionment when at the end of the pageant, a drum roll came over the tower speakers, and two men dressed as reindeer pulled through the compound entrance a two wheeled cart in which a Santa, complete with white beard, was seated.
The crowd went nuts. Children rushed the stage, and the jolly old elf pulled bags of candy out of his sack which he distributed to the kids.
Now, I have nothing against Santa, but I know for a fact that he was not part of the Christmas celebrations of the early church. The early church, I had learned, probably had not made a big deal of Christmas to begin with. The host church was not cooperating with my fantasies. They were trying to be relevant, to connect with twenty-first century Thai people, and I wanted what I imagined to be real almost two thousand years ago.
That I had not notified them in advance of how I wanted them to design the evening’s program didn’t dawn on me at the time. What I knew was that MY NEEDS, or what I thought were my needs, were not being met.
When Nicky and M said it was time to return to M’s Guesthouse, I was happy to leave the party.