Darkness in The Golden Land

A temporal disjuncture of sorts.

Sin Ming coin prata, mutton curry, teh si kosong ping. Karen Connelly's When I look up from the book I’m reading, while nibbling coin pratas (doused in spicy tender mutton curry) and sipping a teh si kosong ping, I am, for a brief moment, amazed to find myself Singapore coffeeshop under a HDB block in Sin Ming.

A week ago, this would have been a dark teahouse or streetside affair in Yangon, with a semolina cake and very thick sweet tea. The dusty air, swirled about in the afternoon heat by an old fan, would have been a delicate potpourri of cheerful cheroot, flaking thanka, juicy red betel nut chews, and exhaust fumes; of sandalwood, jasmine, rose.

It is strange to feel this way. Just a hint of that sour-bitter taste of leaving the people I loved in London to come to Singapore. But how could any part of this heart have been left in the Golden Land? True, it was easy to slip into local life there – the cheap, ubiquitous, delicious street food; the oases of teahouses; the pedestrian dance with slow-moving traffic; the clean derelict streets… But no real gospel partnerships were found.streetside tea shop, Yangon

CC was both keen and cynical – the Judson translation was in Old Burmese and far too difficult for anyone to comprehend (LC agreed: “it’s like the KJV, in Latin”) so good secondary material was necessary, he thought. But so few of those were in Burmese. Yet, the situation was dire: Sunday school teachers were known to teach stories not even found in the Bible because that’s what they themselves had been taught. Meanwhile, Singaporean churches were arriving in Myanmar and throwing their money around, starting cycles of dire dependency and dangerously linking Christianity to material prosperity. Right doctrine, thought CC, was the way to go. – reformed doctrine, Westminster Confession etc.

LC, on the other hand, enthusiastic and well-intentioned, had an endearing way of sharing his life and his struggles, and was keen on social justice – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor in villages, fighting for the rights of those he perceived to be downtrodden. This was admirable and certainly love for neighbour in this sense must be one of the effects of the gospel in one’s life. However, not to the exclusion of and not divorced from even more important things: love for God and his word. LC had a risky loose way of speaking about things: “you are blessed” he said when I made it to the airport in time despite Monday morning traffic (so would I be “cursed” if i suffered the natural consequences of my procrastination?), “God told me/him/her” he explained, admiringly, as the reason why people arrived/left Myanmar sometimes just on the basis of someone’s dream, etc. And when I pointed out that his church was using “salvation”, “healing”, and “wellness” interchangeably, he got annoyed and said that I should not bring intellectual Singaporean standards to Myanmar.

waiting for the sun to rise in Bagan, atop a templeBut if we do not speak according to God’s word, there will be no light of dawn.

Attention to God’s word is necessary because it is our only authoritative communication from God – by his Scripture, God speaks to us and tells us of himself and his plan for the world, of our dire situation, of his Son’s saving work and future universal reign. And by God’s word, God works – his transforming powerful word does not return empty but accomplishes his mission of uniting all things under Christ.

God’s word is sufficient as the means by which we can have knowledge about salvation and knowledge about how to live godly lives. One shouldn’t admire the occurrence of random doubtful dreams and prophecies, but rather praise God for the miraculous ability of Christians to now live lives pleasing to God, putting to death our sins.

And God’s word is clear. God has not left his word to modern intellectuals; he gave his word to people in many places and many times – they were kings and court officials, and also peasants and fishermen, and the uneducated and the orphans, and he expected that they would understand and obey. But we do have to do the hard work of understanding it, just as we would a textbook or a legal document. And the Bible is far more important!

goatherds in Bagan, MyanmarPerhaps this heartache is for hungry goats without a goatherd who will beat the trees of leaves and feed and nourish them. Yet, I take heart that God is the ultimate provider, and will be praying for these dear brothers and for Myanmar for quite some time to come it seems.

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Flight from Singapore to Yangon: Jetstar Asia (S$230)
Train from Yangon to Bagan, and Bagan to Yangon: purchase at the station – second class (6,000 kyat), sleeper (14,000 kyat)

Cities and Kings – Myanmar and David

More than a week ago, I met LC at Al-Azhar to chat, over mugs of teh, about how the gospel was doing in Myanmar. He talked about the thousands of churches in Myanmar and hundreds of bible schools in Yangon alone, and the regretable paucity of good bible teaching. Many Christians were applying God’s historical promises to Israel to their particular political struggles for independence (for some) and democracy (for others).

Empress restaurant by Prive Group, #01-03 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, 179555This weekend, we were at Empress Restaurant (#01-03 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, Singapore 179555) for a weekend dim sum brunch with one of their docents. (The food was fairly decent, but as a Malay friend pointed out, the dishes were tweaked to accommodate a more Western palate (except the chicken feet – what can you do with that?!). I rather enjoyed the subtle twists of taste and texture.)

Upstairs in the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Cities and Kings exhibition intended to tell the story of Myanmar in 60 artifacts that had been carefully shipped over, most of them depicting some Hindu imagery and Buddha in various poses. They’d come from the ancient Pyu period (early first millennium A.D.), from the golden age of Myanmar – the Bagan period (11th – 13th century), from the city of Bago during the period of the Mon kings (14th – 15th century), from the Shan state that enjoyed some independence after the collapse of Bagan (16th – 18th century), and from the last royal city before it was “dismantled” by the British – Mandalay (19th century).

Stele. Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeStele. Sri Kresta. 4th – 6th century. As early forms of kingship were established, the Pyu elites appeared to have supported both Hinduism and Buddhism, hence the mixed imagery on this stele.

Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeBagan. 11th century. Prince Siddhattha cutting his hair – the renunciation of his royal role and the start of his path to Enlightenment.

Buddha seated in dharma chakra mudra (teaching gesture). Bagan 11th century. Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeBagan. 11th century. Buddha seated in dharma chakra mudra making a “teaching” gesture. This statue is rumoured to have wish-fulfilling qualities and so the museum had a little stand made in front of it should anyone want to leave flower offerings. There was a flickering screen nearby showing how they carefully packed the statue (as it was farewelled by Burmese worshippers), crated it, and shipped it to Singapore. Personally, it would give me far greater confidence if my wish-granter could move by his/her own accord at least.

Shan state. 18th century. Buddha and his disciples. Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeShan state. 18th century. Buddha and his disciples. Buddha’s hand is raised in a “fearlessness” gesture.

Buddha with earth-touching gesture. Shan state. 18th century. Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeShan state. 18th century. This seated Buddha makes an “earth-touching” gesture. Evidence of old lacquer is still obvious. Statues were lacquered so that gold-leaf from devotees would adhere to the surface of the statue – a form of merit-making (kutho).

Seated Buddha, Mandalay, 1901. Cities & Kings - Myanmar, Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, SingaporeMandalay. 1901. Seated Buddha.

The various styles and materials used to depict Buddha bore testimony to the political and military upheavals that happened over the course of a thousand years. But of course, Buddhist scriptures aren’t concerned about the rise and fall of dynasty or even the thousands of cycles of birth and rebirth, according to Buddha’s teachings, that must have taken place in the meantime. Their focus is on the here-and-now, with an eye to one’s fate as a reincarnated being (cockroach or man?).

George Orwell’s evil corpulent U Po Kyin comes to mind then. He who, in the opening chapter of Burmese Days, was planning to trump all his evil scheming ways with merit-making – building stupas and pagodas with his ill-gotten wealth. But the Buddhist scheme, at least as commonly understood in Myanmar, has no way of dealing with the blatant injustice of this.

Later, while working on an overview of 2 Samuel, I thought how different the God of the Bible is. (Of course, Buddha never claimed to be a god.) He is a God who is supremely just and cares about justice, and he is a God totally in charge of history and is guiding it according to his definite plan, yet he is also a God who cares for his people.

David’s last words as king and as an oracle:

“The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me;
    his word is on my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken;
    the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men,
    ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
    like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
    like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.
“For does not my house stand so with God?
    For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
    ordered in all things and secure.
For will he not cause to prosper
    all my help and my desire?
But worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away,
    for they cannot be taken with the hand;
but the man who touches them
    arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear,
    and they are utterly consumed with fire.” (2 Samuel 23:2-7)

lo hei, yu sheng. Empress restaurant by Prive Group, #01-03 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, 179555David was never that just king. After the death of Saul, still in his own timing, God first made David first king over Judah, then king over all Israel. He was the one who gave David victory. Unlike other gods, God was adamant that David could not do anything for him (like, err, build him a house when…God himself created the whole world). Rather, he would be the one to give David great promises not just for himself but for his descendants, and later, the whole world:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’ (2 Samuel 7:8-16)

2 Samuel 8-10 was the height of his reign: he gets victory over God’s enemies, protects his people, shows good judgement and amazing generosity to Mephibosheth of the house of Saul. And this, you think to yourself, is a king I would gladly live under.

The Assembly Ground, CathayThen very quickly, David fails to fear God and commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders Uriah (2 Samuel 11), and God judges him justly (2 Samuel 12), and the things spiral downwards with one of his sons raping one of his daughters, his inability to judge justly, his son attempting to usurp his God-given position and succeeding because of popular support from the masses, the subsequent death of his son…(2 Samuel 13-18).

By the time we get to 2 Samuel 19, Joab has won the battle for David, but David is a sad shadow of his former self. Neither Judah nor Israel is particularly keen for him to be back as king, and the only people who are at all enthused to see him are Shimei (who cursed him previously and has now come to grovel – David quite unjustly pardons him) and loyal Mephibosheth (whom David unjustly treats quite shabbily). The lack of any mention of God here is deafening. I’d be quite reluctant to live under such a king myself.

So the Israelites then, would have looked forward to another king like David (but much better) who would be perfectly just and fear God absolutely. And they would be able to do so confidently in faith, because God had made a secure promise in 2 Samuel 7.

And as ST was reflecting, how much more can we rejoice in King Jesus! How blessed we are that we live after the partial fulfilment of that promise of a just and faithful king who will, after he comes again, rule forever. And on the flipside, how much culpable we would be if we did not bow the knee to such a king.

The Assembly Ground, Cathay

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The Assembly Ground
2 Handy Road, The Cathay

coffee: Nylon Coffee‘s Four Chairs – excellent, like Bourbons dipped in milk
milk: not exactly velvety but yielded to the liquid easily
price: S$5.90
air-conditioning: ok
free wifi: yes
power sockets: didn’t see any

Other specialty coffee cafes near Orchard Road to sit and do work in