A Missions Miracle in Burma

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I recently returned from speaking at the annual meeting of the Chin Baptist Convention in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches, which I serve, includes about 140 churches that worship in languages other than English, including the Chin Burmese language. It was through one of these churches that I received the invitation. I knew nearly nothing about Chin Baptists in Myanmar, but to preach in the nation where the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, served over 200 years ago made this invitation particularly intriguing. What I did not know was that the evangelization of the Chin people is one of the great mission stories of the past century, and it’s a story few know.

My wife and I flew to Yangon, Myanmar, which is a Buddhist city. About 90 percent of Burmese people profess Theravata Buddhism as their religion, and Yangon has hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhist pagodas, the largest of which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. At 325 feet in height, it is covered in an estimated nine to sixty tons of gold. In addition, millions of dollars in gems are set in the orb and vane atop the pagoda. I’ve never seen anything like it. The relic that such wealth honors is eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha. Ugh!

From Yangon we flew to the ancient city of Mandalay, another Buddhist city in which scores of pagodas are visible from almost any location. From Mandalay we drove 14 hours to Hakha, the capital of the Chin state. The road was tortuous and rough, probably the worst I’ve ever travelled over that distance. During the first several hours Buddhist pagodas were the dominant feature. Then, at the border of the Chin state, we witnessed an amazing transformation in the religious architecture. There was a cross on a hill, then a church at the high point of a small community. When we reached Hakha we discovered we had entered a territory in which churches were the dominant feature, especially Baptist churches. The Chin people are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent claiming Christ as Lord.

So how did the Chin people, who were animists and wholly illiterate, come to faith in Jesus Christ in such great numbers? I don’t know the full story, but it started when American Baptist missionaries, A.E. and Laura Carson, arrived in Hakha in 1899. It took over six years before the first Chin person received Jesus Christ. He was baptized on Jan. 1, 1906. Rev. Carson died the following year of appendicitis, but Mrs. Carson continued her ministry until 1920 when ill health forced her to leave. A few other missionaries came, with the last one being expelled from the country in 1964. The Chin state was then closed to all outsiders for over 50 years. Because of persecution they were allowed to come to the United States as refugees, which explains the large number of Chin people in our country. Only recently has the national government of Myanmar allowed outsiders into the Chin state and my wife and I were among the first to travel there.

The Chin Baptist Convention that invited us has 64 churches and was formed in 2012. They have broken away from the larger group of Chin churches over theological liberalism and they want connections with Southern Baptists. To my amazement they were familiar with the Baptist Faith and Message. They have researched our beliefs and they know of our commitment to missions. They feel a kinship with us and they want to know us better. One thing I was impressed by is their own commitment to reaching the other peoples in Myanmar. Although they are a poor people, they have sent seven missionaries to unreached peoples in their own country. They have also started a theological college that provides three years of training, including two years of Greek study. Their commitment to educating their teachers and pastors is strong. They want American pastors and professors to come and supplement their teaching with one or two-week intensive classes.

I must say, that in all our years of ministry, our experience with our Chin Baptist brothers and sisters was among the best and most humbling experiences we’ve ever had. Never have we met a more generous, gracious people. It was overwhelming. One leader told us, “We know that the hotel and food we have for you are not up to American standards, but we have given you our best. We are trying to do our best.” I don’t think my wife opened a door, or carried a package, while we were there. I thought I was a gentleman, but the Chin men showed me I could do better.
One man summed the Chin people up quite well. He said, “In the Chin state we have no natural resources. We have no factories or manufacturing. We have no seaport and we have no airport. We have only one thing – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we have … and that is the best thing.”

The Chin people are still largely isolated in the mountainous, western part of Myanmar. It’s difficult to get there, accessible only by roads that are quite treacherous. During three days of our 5-day stay, the city was without electricity, though generators were plentiful so we didn’t go without much. So troubled were our hosts about us not having hot water that each morning someone delivered water in canisters which had been heated over a wood fire. Indeed, they did their best. In every way, they did their best. And their best was plenty.

My wife and I are planning a return visit next year. We want to help them get books for their theological college. We want to advocate for them in whatever ways might strengthen their work in reaching the people of Myanmar. And we want to see our friends again. On one occasion when their leadership was apologizing for what they could not do, I said to them, “We often look at ourselves and see what we are not. But when I look at you I see a people of courage, perseverance, generosity and deep faith.” Those weren’t just words. They are an apt description of an isolated and persecuted people, who have so effectively shared Christ across the villages in the Chin hills, that they are more Christian than almost any people, anywhere, in the entire world.

Suggestions for Churches Concerning Refugees and Immigrants

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On Tuesday of this week the Los Angeles school district cancelled classes in all 900 of its schools because of a terroristic threat. This comes less than two weeks after 14 people were murdered during an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, CA in a terrorist act in which one of the perpetrators was a recent immigrant to our nation via a fiancé visa program. The Disney Resorts, and others too, are revamping their security procedures, which will include various methods of detecting weapons and bombs. These acts and actions followed significant political debate on whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees who have fled the murderous chaos in their country. The ongoing political debate regarding terrorism and immigration is exacerbated by the fact that we are in the midst of a presidential election.

I have noticed that issues such as these are often discussed in our churches, and sometimes they are addressed from the pulpit. Pastors and Bible teachers struggle with whether to address some of the hot issues of the day, and, if they do address them, they wrestle with how to speak to such matters. I do not claim to have all of the answers, but I’d like to offer some suggestions that I pray are helpful when addressing the various issues surrounding immigration, including the immigration of Syrian refugees and others from predominately Islamic nations.

First, the people who attend our churches and Bible classes do not attend to hear what the pastor or Bible teacher “thinks” about the issues of the day, they come to hear what God’s Word says about the issues. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address the hot issues of the day from the pulpit. I believe that we must do so, and that failure to do so can make us less relevant. But we are not called to preach what we think or to express our opinion. We are called by God to preach and teach His Word.

So, regarding the topic of Syrian refugees, or immigration policy in general, I would suggest that we address the believer’s responsibility concerning newcomers to our community, and the churches responsibility to make disciples of all nations. Whether certain peoples should be allowed into our country, and how many should be allowed into our country, is a political issue that cannot be addressed with biblical specificity or authority (Should we admit 10,000? 100,000? 10,000,000? Zero? Do you have a Bible verse for this?). There are biblical principles regarding the role of the state and her leaders, but the specific application of the principles to the Syrian refugee crisis moves into the area of opinion and politics very quickly.

Furthermore, the local church and the individual believer have little to no effect on how the matter is resolved nationally. I may have an opinion, but what difference does my opinion really make (my vote will be partly based on my opinion, but my sermon won’t be)? That said, the local church and individual believer can have a huge impact on a particular immigrant family that moves into their community. On this the Bible is clear: we are to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and share the gospel with them. The political questions concerning immigration can be debated, but the responsibility of the church to the “stranger in our midst” is not something up for debate. We are to love them and share Jesus with them. In this way, we are not preaching what we “think,” we are declaring and doing what God’s Word says about the matter. Therefore, we should separate what we “think” about proper immigration policy from how we respond to the immigrant that moves next door.

Second, churches do not exist merely to grow their ministry. Churches are intended by God to bring the transforming message of Christ to their neighborhood, their city, and to the nations beyond. The migration and immigration of peoples often presents churches a unique opportunity to plant new churches in their city, churches that are better equipped to reach immigrant communities.

Last week I received a message from one of our newest churches that an immigrant family was arriving in our area. This family speaks Nepali. Of our 484 churches, we have three that worship in the Nepali language. All three are new churches. All three were formed to reach first generation immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan. And all three were started by our NWBC convention of churches to reach an immigrant people that an English language church couldn’t reach. One of our Nepalese language churches met this new family at the airport, and drawing upon the resources of other churches in our convention (the fruit of cooperation!), they are ministering the love of God to this family. Praise God!

Yesterday I went to my doctor for a minor medical procedure and the physician’s assistant who did the procedure told me that she was an immigrant from Vietnam. She said that she was one of the original “boat people” (the boat people were Vietnamese who fled when South Vietnam collapsed and the Communists took control in 1975). She was eight years old when her family fled. They spent a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before a church in America sponsored them and brought them to America. She loves the Lord. She loves that church. And she loves America. Her story brought back memories for me, when, as an eighth grader, I taught English to two Vietnamese boys who were “boat people.” They were the only Vietnamese family that moved to Whitefish, MT. They were welcomed into our school and community. They worked hard, and they did well.

Third, invite an immigrant family into your home and get to know them. Only 25 percent of immigrants are ever invited into the home of an American. When they are, they feel greatly honored. This week, I connected a Chinese family in Beijing, China to an American friend who lives there. The Chinese family was neighbors of ours for about 9 months in Oklahoma City. We met them the day they arrived from China. We invited them to our home for dinner, and they invited us to theirs. We shared Christ with them, gave them a Bible, and loved on their little boy. They moved to Singapore and we moved to the Northwest. But we have kept touch via Facebook. He’s been reading the Bible. The family has taken a huge step toward Jesus. I don’t know if they are there yet, but when they decided to move to Beijing, they asked if I could connect them with a church there. And so I have. What a blessing! It began with dinner in our home.

There are serious political issues and questions that are being debated in our nation. I don’t have much control over what will happen nationally and politically. But I have a lot to say about the immigrant next door. What to do about them is a question easily answered. I am to love them, welcome them, pray for them, and share Jesus with them. On a day soon to come, there will be people from every nation worshipping our Lord. I hope our Chinese neighbors are in that number. I hope the family that arrived from Nepal last week is in that number. I hope your neighbors are in that number as well.