Mission in Myanmar
Wow. What a whirlwind it’s all been. During December and January I’ve been helping train teenagers to be missionaries. Working with a non-denominational organisation called Teen Missions, we learnt how to live in a culture that’s not our own, how to impact the nation we were visiting, rooting our relationship in God and how to work hard.
Why I Went
Some people have asked, “Why the heck did you give up your Christmas holidays, career and money?” Well that’s a pretty good question.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Anytime we aren’t doing something hard, we aren’t growing our character. My team certainly heard that from me a lot. Overseas mission work was certainly something I hadn’t done. Helping lead a team of teenagers in a country that doesn’t speak English would be a challenge. No technology, also another. And showering in a bucket. With cold water. Eeeek.
I also wanted to experience poverty. Here in Australia for the most part we are surrounded with wealth. People aren’t struggling with malnutrition. I wanted a better perspective on how most people in this world live. Another reason was that I love teaching Scripture and discipling young people. There’s nothing like seeing them discover who God really is. Bombarding them with questions and breaking down every assumption they’ve ever had is also pretty fun too, I must admit.
A past volunter with Teen Mission I talked with compared it to childbirth.
In the moment it’s one of the most intense, painful moments you’ve ever experienced. You feel a mess but you get something irreplaceable. And after some months you forget about the misery and pain, and you’re ready to have another one.
Excellent. What have I gotten myself into.
After 3 days of leaders training, all 14 of our team members began to arrive. As a team we slept in a circle of tents which we had spent the previous 2 days prepping. We had to cover the tents in a thick black tarp to protect the it from the tropical rains. This had the unfortunate consequence though of turning my humble tent into 10 day sauna fiesta! Every day we would wake up at 5:30am, ready to leave our tent site by 5:45am. At 6 our team would run a 15 minute obstacle course together. The obstacle course is designed to bring the team together while also preparing them for various situations they’ll encounter on the mission field.
After eating breakfast off our prison trays, we’d then have our 30 minutes of devotional time. Then we’d jump into classes till about 5pm. They ranged from particular bible topics to bricklaying, carpentry, puppets, music and the like. At the end of the day we’d have a rally, which essentially was a time for team cheers, worship and a message from a different speaker each day. This then concluded with an altar call. The campsite would then dead silent by 9:30pm.
Rinse and repeat. Except Sunday’s which were a day of rest.
Boot camp for leaders was also organisation time. Menus to plan, medication to allocate, travel documents to organise.
In the first few days, one thing that begun to be apparent was that our team was very young, and overall weren’t the most skilled workers. But more of an issue was the lack of spiritual growth that was coming about. It had been nearly a week, and despite all the training and messages our team as a whole not fully allowing God to change them. We leaders spent the day praying about it, so that they would not miss what God was doing.
That night, during the evening rally, a youth pastor came up to deliver his message. His first words were along the lines of: “I have a message for you guys. Don’t miss what God is doing”. I raised an eyebrow. After that message, nearly our entire team came forward for the altar call. Praise God! That night was a high point for me, and I ended that night chatting with the remaining team members with a fury of scripture about the power of God and what it means to follow him.
After 10 gruelling days of Boot Camp, the final day arrived. That night we had a candlelit ceremony, where we committed ourselves to God and to his mission this summer. We walked out of that chapel one by one with our candles. For the team heading to Vanuatu, their bus was already waiting to take them straight to the airport. But for our team it was time to celebrate, with pizza and a toast to God.
The Mission Field
A little bit about Myanmar…
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a place unfamiliar to most people’s ears. It’s sandwiched between Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh and Laos. It has a population of 51 million and has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world. There is a number of ongoing civil wars in the country. It is also a nation transitioning to democracy. Last year saw it’s first non-military president since a military coup in 1962. 88% of the population is Buddhist, 6% Christian and 4% Islamic.
So when we touched down I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. As we stepped off the plane we stepped into a remarkably modern airport. Outside you could see vast construction on expanding the entire airport. As we were waiting in the immigrations lines power appeared cut out and the lights went out for a few minutes. Once we stepped outside the airport we were hustled and bustled into chaos. We jumped on a bus, with all our luggage thrown into the back seats, and we began our 2 hour trek to the orphanage.
The next few hours I observed a total lack of traffic control, people hanging off the side of vehicles, dedicated watermelon salesmen, vendors selling 1GB mobile data plans for $1, and billboards advertising bags of cement and 20 megapixel “selfie” camera phones. We passed through a number of toll gates, heading down narrower and narrower dirt paths before squeezing around a corner into the orphanage.
The orphanage has a total of roughly 40 children, with another orphanage also in the same village. On the site was also a bible college. One of the clearest memories that day was when David and Nancy, the missionaries who run the orphanage, prepared lunch for us. They took us to the other side of the orphanage and sat us down. They served us stewed meat, a salad and an amazing soup along with slices of carrot cut into flowers. But the part that cut me to the heart was when some of the children and students noticed how sweaty we were that day and pulled out hand fans to cool us. Part of me just wanted to yell inside “Stop! It’s okay, we don’t need this much”. Their humbleness was almost too much to bear for me and I did not feel worthy of what we were receiving.
The bible college there was very kind to allow us to use their main building to sleep in. We spent that first day setting up mosquito nets, which for some became quite an annoyance. After setting them up, the insecticide on them left my face stinging like an inferno for the remainder of the day! Connected to the building was our outdoor kitchen. We had a gas stove and by placing a big metal box on top of it we had a makeshift oven. We had to purify our own water using the purification system we brought. It relied on gravity to push the water through, which meant it was not incredibly fast. It also needed constant monitoring to make sure it didn’t run out of water to filter. We had some squat toilets, showered with buckets and burnt our rubbish and toilet paper daily. The village had electricity, but one issue that became obvious over the trip was that outside the city there was often power outages. And that led to some pretty frustrating issues with PA systems at church. The orphanage’s water was sourced from a well. They had a UV purification system they used for their drinking water, but we used our own system.
The Work Project
Leading up to arriving at the worksite, we were confused as to what we would actually be doing. After a few days it was finalised that we would be laying the walls and roofing for a dormitory or church, on the existing foundations. One thing about building in Burma, is that brick quality wasn’t that great. Bent and wonky, they were also much smaller then the bricks they had been practising with at Boot Camp so the team adjusted to new laying techniques.
We also found ourselves running English classes daily with the children. 2-3 of our team would spend the mornings teaching them a curriculum masterfully put together by Tim. By the end of the kids would often come up to the worksite and have a basic conversation with us about the day. They were really fast learners!
Near the end of the trip we also had the task of constructing fencing for a newly established Teen Missions base in the country. In fact the land was paid for the day we started work there.
Church in Yangon
Every Sunday while in Myanmar, we visited a new church, did a presentation and preached. We spent our first Sunday at a Christmas service with the orphans. Our second Sunday in Burma we went to a baptist church in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. It took two different buses over 2 hours to get there.
We sang songs, Atarah gave her testimony and Nathaniel did a sermon about how a bowl of rice is like the Kingdom of Heaven. Afterwards they asked us to stick around for lunch and we dined into the noodles and coffee they offered us.
Elwin, coordinator of Teen Mission operations in Myanmar, decided to take us to the largest Buddhist monastery in the city. And boy was it big. We neared the temple and approached it’s entrance. There was just so many people. So many shops and people trying to sell their wares. Food, haircuts, birds, Buddha statues. Clearly came to mind a story about how Jesus got ticked off about the worldliness of a supposedly spiritual place.
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’
As we attempted to enter, there was a requirement to remove our shoes, among with other modesty requirements. So we took them off and continued inwards. However the rules had changed since Elwin had last come. Now they also required no socks to be worn. However, that was against our team policies, which got us into some trouble halfway through the long entrance corridor. Vendors and merchants selling their religious items started shouting aggressively at us. The language barrier was not a problem here. We, in our “socky” state, were not welcome here.
Consider it pure joy…
As we were approaching the halfway mark of our time there, I was again concerned that our team was struggling to grow spiritually, and that we were missing what was important. Progress on the worksite was also moving slowly and we were slipping from the intended schedule.
This was eventually brought this up with the team, for their opinions and thoughts. Some of them expressed similar convictions and wanted to be challenged greater. They wanted to see God work powerfully in our team. James 1:2 came to mind, and so as a team we prayed for trials that night, and that we would make space for God to work. That was one of the most memorable nights of prayer for me.
The next day though, nothing was really different. As a team we worked a bit faster on the worksite, but there was nothing of particular note. But the week progressed, slowly but surely the trials came.
Lots of little things began to move. A sick American missionary team arrived at the orphanage. Our cooking stove began to melt and warp, which luckily we got welded back together. Then our water filtration system slowed down dramatically. The filter appeared to have been blocked by algae from the water supply. We thought a scrub of the first filter would do the trick. It worked better but was still slow. We pre filtered the water with a towel and we swapped out the second stage filter with a brand new one. Nope. Still unbearably slow. We then attempted to boil water. Since had limited stove capacity when using our makeshift oven, we attempted to set up a small fire outside the kitchen. This ended up being incredibly slow, not to mention wood being quite expensive in Myanmar. We went back to the gas stove, only to give get a big leaking hole in our brand new pot. As such we began to order bottled water as needed. Some of us started to feel that God was calling us further down the direction of evangelism. We had discussed doing a bit of evangelism on a free day but decided to set 2 half days for it in our last week.
While we were overseas, everyone was given a different missionary book to read. I received both “God’s Smuggler to China” and “The Heavenly Man”. Both were books about the church and mission work in China. One of a American called to smuggle Bibles to believers, the other a poor child called to preach the gospel. Both characters in the books heavily relied on God to answer their bold prayers, and I was significantly challenged by how they lived by faith.
And it was during one of those particular stories about prayer, when someone in our team ran out of medication. I went to Yangon to find some more, thinking that it should be pretty common. Unable to find any at all. Faced with having to send her yet again on another doctors trip and make a phone call to her parents (she ended the trip with a record 6 visits under her belt), I felt encouraged to pray, and see whether I would “find” some medicine in my medical bag. So I prayed with the kitchen team. After I then plunged my hand into my backpack, as I had an empty box of their medication. I opened it hoping God may have refilled it. Nope. Damn. I then went into the medicine bag, and unzipped their personal bag of medical supplies, Right there without needing to touch a thing, an entire pack was there. I freaked out a little. Maybe I was just blind but I swear I had searched that bag multiple times. We now had just enough to make it back to Australia.
Sightseeing in the West
For our key sightseeing time we headed west into the country. We had an overnight bus ride there, having a bumpy night of sleep onboard before arriving at an ancient cave at roughly 5am. In the past 2 kings had secretly met in these caverns and made a peace agreement. There was also a beautiful hot spring, and that morning we could see the steam hover above the surface of the water. Now however you could barely tell of the natural beauty that remains. Now a large monastery sits atop it. The currently accessible part of the cave system contains rows upon rows of identical statues seemingly dedicated to Buddha, new ones being built, with bags of cement lying around as evidence. Our guide, Reuben explained that wherever a tourist attraction was, they would build a monastery right on top. At this temple, like the one near the orphanage, they had a monk on a microphone talking in a trance-like way. One of our team said to God that he wished he wouldn’t have to hear him speak. His microphone then broke.
We then headed off and then stopped somewhere for breakfast. We had noodles and rice, my favourite way of beginning the day, for the high cost of 500 kyat (roughly 50 cents). From there we drove for a few more hours. During the drive I continued to see all the temples scattered throughout the landscape and monks chanting over loudspeakers. I thought about the strength of Buddhism here and also how quickly westernised and worldly the country was becoming. It made me think about who the prince of this world is.
Eventually we arrived at the Death Railway Museum. Apparently a number of people died while building a railway under Japanese occupation. I would explain more about it, if only I went in. Me and a minority group declared our allegiance against random museums and so we decided to scout around, purchased prophetic fruit, delivered prophetic fruit to locals and picked up rubbish to the baffled looks of the vendors nearby.
The Reclining Buddha we visited is the largest of its kind in the world. As Dana would say, its ear is as big as your house. Inside was spaces for worship, meditation and what appeared to be a museum depicting the life and teachings of Buddha. Half an entire floor of the exhibit appeared to depict demons torturing people, which freaked out some of our team. Rooms and rooms of meat grinders, tearing open of flesh by carrion and blood gushing everywhere. Some of our team were visibly sick and disturbed by the experience. For them it really hit home that the Buddhism has more to it then meets the eye.
This contrasted to the next place we visited, which was the first Baptist Church in Myanmar. We were let in and inside was an old, out of tune grand piano. Daniel jumped on it and we just sung a few songs in praise of our God, and had some time of prayer.
I think what we had seen that day, put our team into the right mindset for evangelising to the people we were going to meet in the days to come.
Public evangelism in Myanmar is banned. Luckily our team didn’t know that. On our last week, shortly after sightseeing we evangelised in the village Monday afternoon, then at the markets the following day in the morning.
I personally was quite nervous about it, but I knew it was something God wanted me to do. One thing I knew God wanted me to overcome this year was not being ashamed about him. I fear rejection and so at times I change my words to avoid it. But that only seeks to make the problem worse, and to hide who I am.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
And so that afternoon we went out in two groups. We had a number of tracts and went house to house introducing ourselves . Our translator said a few things and then we would pray for them. Because we could not speak the language, all could really do is hope that God would move their hearts. Because there was clearly no way we ourselves could. Our group prayed for at least 50 homes, and we gave tracts to everyone we met or saw. Mac was incredibly passionate and ran after locals on bicycles, farmers hustling oxen and tried to learn as many burmese phrases as possible in that short time.
We also prayed for 2 healings. One was with an old man who had kidney problems. Another was a Christian man named Claypot, who’s wife had invited us into their home. He was slumped on the floor and his wife explained that his leg had been injured in an accident. Soon it would be completely useless and paralysed. So we prayed for them and their family, and they were incredibly thankful.
The next day, we were preparing ourselves for evangelism at the markets and folding up some more tracts. That morning a man stumbled into the orphanage asking to see us. His name was Claypot. He told us that last night he couldn’t sleep, and that he had to come once down again to thank us. We talked, prayed for him once again and he left us some gifts. As he went on his way we couldn’t help but think how he’d actually managed to walk 4 kilometres all the way here on his own.
Encouraged, we set off in two separate teams heading for the markets, a half an hour walk away. On the way we once again greeted people on the street and handed out tracts. My team took a different route, and then a young guy came up and hugged one of us. Weirded out slightly, we were invited by his family to join a party they were having. After much insisting we went in. They sat us down and put out these delicious noodles, biscuits and cake. And they offered seconds, don’t you worry about that. It was their son’s 1st birthday party, and we prayed for them, they took photos with us and we had what conversations we could. They also gave to one of us an elephant they had just finished carving out of a coconut husk. After much delay, we headed back towards the markets to meet up with the rest of the team. From there we made a push into the bustling markets, doing what we could to spread the gospel in the way we could.
By the end of those two days we had given out 1000 tracts, but we had only half our team out doing evangelism. Mainly because the rest of our team was sick.
Anyone Call a Medic?
Seemingly as part of the trials that had been prepared for us, sickness was one of them. Much fun was awaiting me, the assigned nurse, and with my partner in crime Charlotte. Up till the last week of our adventure, we had a few people with some minor health issues, but that was that. Now, nearing the completion of the project, it apparently became an opportune time to drop like flies.
For 3 days straight we had seven of our team held in for sickness. On the occasion someone would improve enough to work, someone else would fall ill and replace them. This made meal times much more complex, especially with also handing out twice the amount of medication in addition to the standard malarials.
I remember clearly the last day of our main work project. Sick people needing to be attended to, much work to do with water pumps breaking, scaffolding missing and the power being out nearly the entire day. I had to run the kitchen for a few hours that day. The bible college had asked me to preach that night, and so once everything was cooking I prepped my sermon. Because of the developments I had seen in the country during my short time there I wanted to warn them about the threat of worldliness and believing in a powerless God, so I went through Paul’s warning in 2 Timothy 3:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 3:1-7
The team continued to work into the night. Then they ran out of bricks. Luckily for us, a sick leader overheard our conversation and mentioned that he had saw some spare bricks in the water well. And he was right. Enough to finish the remaining wall that night. Project completed.
The next two days, our team travelled east to the newly purchased Teen Missions property to put up some fencing. With half of our team still sick, me another with other leaders stayed behind. The team arrived back the first day, only to find that one of the team had inflamed her existing knee injury. This was not the first time on the trip this had occurred, and I sent her to the sick room. Some time later, me and Charlotte stumble on her having a panic attack from severe pain. I attempt to unwrap her from the mosquito net without injuring her, while Charlotte attempts to calm her down. It was an intense moment, watching her struggle to utter her name. After some time she calms down and we leave her to rest.
The next evening, she was still not doing well and I decide to spend some time praying for her. I pop into the sick room to see how she is doing. At that moment I felt this intense need to pray for her, and so I did, my stare as though my eyes were fire. I left and returned a few minutes later, only to find that she was awake and mouthing words to the ceiling. The injury became aggravated again and she was panicking. I sat by her bed and attempted to calm her. She stared right at me and whispered to me “I cannot see”. That was truly freaky. I asked her what her favourite Psalm was, which she responded with Psalm 139. I asked another person in the room for a Bible, and I read out the words to her. We prayed for quite some time.
Eventually she was calm and still. I left the room and spoke with Charlotte, wondering how she was going to be able to move about, as the next day was souvenir shopping in the city. To our shock, she suddenly appeared in the corridor, looking completely normal and a bit surprised. She walked outside and we sat with her, talking about what she had experienced, and she had no pain. Her injury never became an issue on the trip again.
The Final Day
After purchasing much souvenirs and a heart wrenching goodbye with everyone at the orphanage, we hit our beds, ready to wake up at 5am the next day to take a bus to Yangon, have a nice breakfast and then fly out at 10:25am. God had other plans though, well at least for me.
I was woken up at 1am, with a leader ill and throwing up heavily. So I went and cleaned it up. 2am. Charlotte wakes me up and informs me that someone’s stomach pains had worsened and was nearly unbearable. It was a long and stressful night, with many phone calls and decisions to make. Eventually the plan was made those who had gotten ill in the night to the local doctors clinic as soon as it opened and then get them on the flight. Even up to leaving, God did not relent on our team. We had gotten what we had asked him to provide. Trials.
Thoughts and Reflections
I’m still unsure of how I’ve changed these past 2 months, but I have noticed one difference. My perspective on prayer. God has consistently challenged me in what it is, and what it is for. This trip I’ve come to better understand the power of prayer. The two books I was given to read during the summer included stories ranging from someone praying for the location of their car keys, blinding Chinese officials to thousands of smuggled Bibles, to praying that they’d share the love of Jesus with their prison torturers. Prayer is powerful. When we believe that God is going to move and we ask him from the heart, things happen.
Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I am doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in My name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.
Don’t always assume that God is going to do something. Ask him to work powerfully. Don’t expect less. Talk to him about it. Know him intimately. He gives us an invitation to come before him, and to speak our requests.
When we asked God to get through to our team, he moved. When we asked for trials, he delivered. When we asked him to endure and rejoice in the trials, he gave us the means.
For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.
2 Chronicles 16:9a
He is looking for people who’s hearts are truly seeking him. Not those who just go to church every week. Not for nice people. Not for those who pray because it’s a good thing to do. He’s looking for those who want bring his kingdom come on earth and are praying like Jesus would pray. He’s desperately looking for those people. He desperately wants to answer their prayers and give them his strong support.
New Year’s night I asked everyone which path they wanted to take in 2017. The easy path, or the hard path. I myself wonder which way my year is headed. Because of the trip, I had to resign as director of my company Appvation and appoint a new director. That was not an easy process, and yet that may have been the biggest blessing. To be relieved of that responsibility will make 2017 completely different to the past few years. CitySoul, a church community I’ve become deeply a part of, is ready to dive into some exciting waters this year. And now I have my time to give. Something new is that I’ll be studying ministry this year, with the Uniting Church Intern Year program.
On the way back to Adelaide from Brisbane, I felt prompted to sit next to 2 people in the airport. After some hesitation, but not wanting to miss what God might do, I sat next to them awkwardly, said hi and asked “So, who are you?”. It turned out that they ran a Bible college in the US, and were here for discussions to decide on Bible translation guidelines for unreached tribes. We also talked about mission work and exchanged details.
I have no clue why God wanted me to talk to them. And honestly I have very little clue what God wants me to do this year, but I do not want to miss what God is doing. Time after time he puts before us invitations to follow him and to do something uncomfortable. Often we hesitate. But the invitation won’t be there forever, and he will give it to someone else who is more faithful to do his will.
This year, I do not want to hesitate. I want to take every invitation he offers.