A Bible study in Myanmar

It is a sweltering, humid day—a clarion call of the coming monsoon season. It will not be long before God opens the heavens with thunderous sheets of water, turning roads into rivers of muddy black and ocher. The electricity is sporadic—a reminder that reliable electricity is a luxury here. The odor of wet dog wafts in the heavy air as we sit in plastic patio chairs inside a long, narrow room. From young to old, most of the women wear traditional skirts, or tamein. Upon their faces pale yellow circles on each cheek, an ancient sunscreen called thanaka made of ground tree bark. With a few dogs stretched at our feet and with Bibles in hand, we begin our ladies’ Bible study in Yangon, Myanmar in May 2017.

The ladies look forward to the study and fellowship. This is especially so since Arminian teaching is all too common among the relatively few nominal Christians in Myanmar. The rich truth that our sovereign God always accomplishes His will in our salvation as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity and expressed in the Five Solas is rare. For more than 20 years the Reformed faith has been proclaimed by Rev. Titus. In those early years the Lord graciously opened a door by having Rev. J. Kortering and Rev. A. denHartog work with Rev. Titus. Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan has been laboring faithfully ever since. What a privilege to get to know believers from such a different culture but one in faith with us! How important it is for our Protestant Reformed families not merely to know where these nations are on a map or some of their unique cultural characteristics, but also to endeavor to know the actual people we come in contact with, to hear their thoughts, as the Lord directs our churches in mission work.

We read in English and Burmese the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. “Was it wrong for Martha to be busy preparing food for Jesus?” someone asks. The ladies shake their heads and one says, “It was not wrong. It is good to serve one another. Cooking is just one of those ways.” Her words rang true. We watched many of these women during the Bible conference that week drenched in sweat, cheerfully cooking delicious food in large pots over open fires. There was plenty of chopping and more chopping, children busily washing dishes, and enormous rice cookers on all day. These women were great examples of selfless serving.

A follow-up question is raised, “So what did Martha do to receive this gentle rebuke from Jesus?” We ponder this question. “I think Martha was wrongly judging her sister, Mary,” answers someone. We nod that this is a good point. After all, Jesus pointed out that Mary, who was sitting at His feet and listening to His teaching, had chosen the one thing that is needful—that good part. We cannot lose sight of that good part, either, even in our serving. If we do, we will find ourselves becoming critical of each other instead of building one another up in the Lord. We exchange glances of how we need to be reminded of this. We move on, discussing personal devotion times and other such ways we listen to Jesus.

We talk about the importance of being a godly witness—we are being watched. Over a period of a couple years, Rev. Titus and his family witnessed to a Buddhist who was a boarder in their home. By God’s grace, Soe Win converted to Christianity—as well as his parents and siblings. Thirty years later, Soe Win is a missionary pastor who loves the Reformed faith and works closely with Rev. Titus. He humbly confesses it is God’s mercy that he believes when many do not.

What a blessed life in contrast to the hopeless religion of Buddha! Earlier, we visited a large pagoda and saw little boys sitting on their fathers’ shoulders brought in and left behind to become Buddhist monks. The monks with their shaven heads and red robes epitomize a spiritual, meritorious life in hope of a better reincarnation. We watched people pour water over statues for good karma and exhibit self-denial by sitting in the scorching sun.

As we continue to discuss witnessing, a woman shares a story about her work in a garment factory with Buddhists. Since Buddhism is by far the most common religion in Myanmar, she is one of the only Christians. Her co-workers watch her closely and even notice her higher paychecks. In a country where inflation is often on the rise while wages are not, they were furious. They went to the supervisor and demanded to know why this Christian was getting special treatment. The answer was simple: closed-circuit television where diligence and laziness cannot be hid. The woman told them she did not know about the cameras but labors for Christ’s sake. We thank God to hear of her witness, working “…heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Col. 3:23).

Others express their desire to be a godly witness. A teen girl sits pensively in the study. She shared with us earlier how poorly she is treated in school because she refuses to bow before her teacher. The Buddhist religion maintains that student must worship teacher. Other young people in the church echo a similar experience of sometimes being mocked, given the most and worst chores at school, and even beaten. A heavy trial for such young ones, but they are comforted to know their names are written in heaven and that saints across the world are praying for them.

Even the saints in Myanmar are learning to put cultural differences aside. A young Christian woman from the Karen tribe is present. Myanmar is made up of many ethnic groups often referred to as tribes: the Bamar, the Chin, the Kachin, the Karenni, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Rohinga, Shan, and more. Her Christian husband happens to come from a rival tribe to the Karens. “We encourage these marriages!” said Rev. Titus. “Which tribe one comes from does not matter when we marry in the Lord. We all come from different backgrounds, so we must learn to bear with one another.”

Rev. Titus and his wife, Cer te, are from the Chin tribe. This tribe is unique because most are nominally Christian. Over a century ago missionaries came to the hilly Chin State (one of the regions within Myanmar) during the British Empire. Though nominal Christians are in the majority, the Burmese government stations its army battalions—comprised mainly of Buddhists—to control the Chins with an iron fist. Many Chin do not speak Burmese, and most Burmese do not speak Chin, which exacerbates the problem Though Cer te grew up in the Chin State, Rev. Titus lived in a variety of regions. In God’s providence, this has given him a broad education and understanding of Myanmar and its peoples. It does not take long to observe that he is not a mere book worm and that people are comfortable talking with him.

“What do Protestant Reformed families talk about with their children during family devotions?” asks a mother of several children. Good question—what would you say in response? Would you mention that after a long day of school and work that it is good to come together at the evening meal and talk about our day, read and apply the Scriptures, pray, and maybe even sing the Psalms? Or, say that our children have struggles they need to talk about, mainly their struggle against their own sinful nature that wants them to be like this world? How we need to encourage them to pray for grace to put off that old man and put on the new throughout the day. We discuss a number of these things and the mother nods enthusiastically. Rev. Titus translates: “Yes, yes, it is just the same with our children. They struggle against their sinful nature too.” We look to the same cross and know that we are not so different after all.

My attention is drawn to a cluster of bright-eyed preadolescents and teenage girls intently listening. It appears they sense this is a very important meeting. They are the precious future of the church in Myanmar—citizens of one of the poorest nations, yet rich in faith. It is a difficult life, but there are some improvements. An historic democratic election took place in 2015. Communication is another area making advancements.

Our delegation asks the ladies if they have opportunities to encourage one another during the week, perhaps meet for a Bible study. They express a desire but admit they do not have much contact except on Sunday. There may be more options in the future. Even though Myanmar’s transportation infrastructure is a work in progress (think two, three people balancing on a bicycle weaving in and out of traffic, overcrowded buses, open trucks with passengers partly or completely hanging on the outside, and few traffic signals), their mode of communication is growing by leaps and bounds.

Just a few years ago hardly anyone owned a smartphone. Today foreign investors are building solar-powered cell phone towers across Myanmar, most notably in remote areas. As of June 2017, ninety percent of the country’s roughly 54 million people have access to a phone with Internet service, according to a recent article quoting the Myanmar Computer Federation in Bloomberg Businessweek. With smartphones, some going for less than $20, and with domestic calls for just two cents a minute, citizens of Myanmar finally have instant communication with each other and the outside world.

For the church in Myanmar, this opens doors. When our ministers return home, they are able to continue live Bible studies by FaceTime connected to a wide screen. Some of our brethren in Myanmar have email addresses, some are on social media, and some can communicate via Skype or FaceTime. They can talk with each other during the week, and we in other countries can talk with them too. At one of our young adult Bible studies in Iowa we greeted Rev. Titus and his family and chatted a bit together. In a chapel speech at our Trinity Christian High School the students watched some interviews with young people from the church in Yangon describing what it is like to be a Christian in Myanmar. Seeing and hearing real believers speak helps us pray for them more meaningfully, makes the distance seem shorter, and our common faith more precious.

As I glance around the Bible study, I desire to keep in touch in the future. A white terrier mix gets up, padding to the door. These dogs are something else. As Rev. Titus merrily remarks, “Our dogs sing any Psalter number you like!” Sure enough, when the congregation sings, the dogs bark and howl a rousing descant. So now it seems they can sense when Bible study should end? Dog or no dog, this time of fellowship around God’s Word has been a highlight of our trip.

May the Lord continue to bless the saints in Myanmar and in all nations. May we, and our children, grow closer to these brothers and sisters in Christ, encouraging and praying for one another ever more so in the days ahead.