Rev Jan Mathieson, minister of Cawdor linked with Croy and Dalcross shares a snippet of her visit to Myanmar.
As we stepped off the plane the looks on the faces of the people gathered round the rudimentary buildings that comprised the airport spoke clearly : we had probably come from another planet! We had certainly landed in a different world. This was Tahan/Kalay in the north of Myanmar – several thousand miles distant from Scotland and a contrast of culture, wealth and way of life that is impossible to measure.
Yet this party of seven female ministers – one representing the Church of Scotland and six others from the United Reformed Church all based in England – were not strangers in a foreign land for long. We were met and greeted by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Myanmar along with the Accountant (what we would call the General Treasurer) and taken across the road to one of the ‘tea-shops’ that were to become a familiar sight.
Breaking open and sharing the steamed pork rolls felt sacramental : our visit to the PCM had only just begun but already brothers and sisters in Christ were strangers no longer but were becoming friends.
In the week that followed friendship strengthened and fellowship was deep and enriching.
In a predominantly Buddhist country, Christianity is one of the minority religions, carving out an identity in the midst of both Buddhist culture and a growing consumerism and secularism. Yet in Tahan and the immediately surrounding area 90% of the people are Christian, belonging to one of the many denominations whose presence is testament to the work and witness of assorted missionaries who came to the country in previous generations from North India, usually through the province of Missoram.
Since part of the purpose of the visit was to explore with church leaders, students and women members the issues of leadership and the ordination of women, it was interesting to hear the church in Missoram described not as ‘mother church’, as in the English idiom, but as the ‘father church’ reflecting a male dominance in society. But it was humbling to hear, too, in how high regard the churches of Europe and Britain were held.
Yet the church of today, in this part of South-East Asia has its own personality : a strong personality – and its own distinctive witness in a society where change is all around; hope is in the air and a new freedom is emerging hesitantly, tentatively from the bondage of restriction and repression in which it has existed for almost two generations. There is a real sense of people living close to God – God in whom they trust when many around them in positions of power are profoundly untrustworthy; God on whom they depend in the face of dire poverty; God whose truth sets them free : God’s whose love they know and share every day.
This closeness to God leads to a warmth and care for others; to hospitable welcome to visitors come among them; to a concern for the poor – for they acknowledge and act to help those they recognise as less well-off, a distinction that is hard for western guests to grasp.
It leads also to worship offered willingly; offered frequently; offered humbly and offered joyfully.
What a privilege it was to be part of such worship : the sound of a drum keeping the beat during praise; voices raised in song to tunes that are the tunes of God’s people around the world, part of a shared heritage of faith and its expression – Cwm Rhonda; To God Be The Glory! – prayers spoken and unspoken; the Word in scripture heard and read and taught and preached. What a privilege it was to preach! What a privilege to be in the presence of God in the company of such people, our sisters and brothers in Christ, who have so much to share with us about how to be the church.