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By Tom Holmes
Editor's 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
A man from the Luther School of Theology gave me a ride to the Bangkok Institute of Theology where I was to meet Pongsak and hitch a ride to Pattaya where I would spend my last day “alone” in Thailand with 150 Asian Lutherans from all over Asia and the diaspora in the U.S.
As I waited for Pongsak at BIT, I said hello to many friends: Jenjira who had been my intern back in my congregation in 2004 and was now a professor at BIT, Surasak a professor who had picked me from the airport on my first visit to Thailand in 1994 and Nantiya, a BIT professor whom I had also met on my first trip. I had slept and eaten and worshiped at BIT so many times over the last 17 years that it felt a little bit like home.
The man who drove the car Pongsak had rented was an older seminary student named Saichon Kuhawan. His English was very good, so I was able to join in on parts of the conversation between him and Pongsak as we made the two hour drive from Bangkok to the resort town of Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand where the sixth Asian Lutheran International Conference was being held.
Just like at BIT, I felt quite at home at the conference. I was able to say hello to many old Asian friends. On top of that, since the Asians at the conference spoke ten or more different languages, all the plenary sessions and worship services used English, the lingua franca of the world these days. I knew most of the opening worship service by heart, because it came straight out of the hymnal I had been using for 25 years.
It felt good to be on more familiar ground, to not feel so out of my element even though I was half way around the world from home, to feel at least a little bit like I knew what I was doing.
The comfort I felt with these somewhat familiar surroundings made me wonder if I was regressing, if so much time feeling like a learner had affected me negatively, so that all I wanted to do was retreat into a safe homogeneity.
While I was pondering all of this, I thought of Derek Petersen, a kid I had worked with in the senior high youth group while I was an intern in 1978 in Moose Lake, MN. Moose Lake was extremely homogeneous, very Scandinavian and very Lutheran. So where did Derek choose to study after high school but St. Olaf College which was more of the same.
After 20 years of not seeing each other, I met up with Derek in Juneau, AK while I was travelling along Alaska’s Inside Passage. Derek was working as a lobbyist in Juneau for Alaska’s public schools. As part of his work he had visited schools north of the Arctic Circle, had harrowing experiences with bush pilots, and shared meals with Inuits and Athabascans. As a lobbyist he worked with politicians, representatives from oil companies, tree huggers and native people.
When I remarked that relating to Inuits who lived on the Bering Sea was a big stretch from the parochial environment in which he had spent the first 21 years of his life, he nodded in agreement but added, “I think that growing up in that way is what frees me to relate comfortably with so many different kinds of people.”
I’ve thought a lot about what Derek said since we had our conversation. I think what he meant was that his family, church and community had given him a clear sense of who he was. He had been given an identity which, perhaps counterintuitively, had made him so secure that he was not threatened by people from different cultures. He felt no need to be defensive or to convert them or to try to be like them. He was content with being himself and letting the people with whom he worked be themselves.
And, thinking about Derek made me recall a conversation with a friend back home named Karl Reko who had been a missionary forty years ago in Papua New Guinea. Reflecting back on his experience which included a lot of mistakes, he told me, “Your ability to be a good missionary will correspond directly to how long you can stand to be a baby. You’re there to learn, learn, learn before you try to give them the gifts you have to offer.”
I think Derek would add, “In order to tolerate always being a learner in a different culture, you have to know who you are and be secure in your identity.”
The more time I spent with my fellow Lutherans, the more I realized that my attitude towards Buddhism was changing. Throughout my time alone in Thailand I kept on having these imaginary conversations between the Buddha and Jesus in my head. What would Buddha say? What would Jesus say? The reason I had been doing this, I decided, was that I felt I needed to work down to the question of ultimate truth. In that regard, one had to be right and the other wrong.
That way of framing my encounter with Buddhism, I concluded, was due to the baggage I had inherited from the Enlightenment which I still carried around. Truth, Enlightenment thinkers had declared, must always be determined by reason and empirical observation. If you make a truth claim, they would argue, you had better be ready to prove it is true with facts and logical reasoning.
But what if ultimate truth is more relational that rational? What if truth has more to do with whom you love than with what you know?
During the opening service for the conference, I received communion for the first time in almost two months. As often happens, I felt, at least temporarily, more connected to God after receiving. And it struck me that it wasn’t a rational enlightenment that I had received but rather a relational connection.
I remembered that the Hebrew word translated as to know can mean to know a fact, as in I know that Springfield is the capitol of Illinois. Or, it can mean to be intimate with another person, as in I know my son and daughter. To say I know Ben and Bekah well in no way implies that I have them figured out. They remain very much a mystery to me. What it does mean is that I am blessed with a strong, close relationship with them.
The result of all of this pondering was that my need to prove who was right—Buddha or Jesus—evaporated, because receiving communion reminded me that I knew whom I loved and who loved me. And being grounded--at least for a little while--in that love made me open--at least temporarily—to receive whatever gifts the Buddha had to give me.
What I was experiencing, I’m pretty sure, wasn’t relativism or syncretism but the freedom to embrace diversity which being loved gives to people.
The upshot of all of this seems, paradoxically, to be that if people want to cross cultural boundaries in mutually respectful ways, they need to create and nurture well defined, healthy personal boundaries and a secure identity for themselves first.
Before I left Chicago for my forty days alone in Thailand, I explained part of what I wanted to do by telling my friends, “When I’m alone in Thailand, my only travelling companions will be my self(sic) and God. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get along with either one.”
I got to know both of them better in the solitude I had experienced as a visitor in a foreign land. Now I was ready to get to know them better through the familiar places and people back home.