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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sowing to the Spirit

Pwee tah luh tha a ghaw, pwee tah goh mu nee, pwee tah tha ga nyaw klee, pwee luh gleh daw boh… Sow to the spirit, sow everyday, sow the seeds of mercy, sow on every road… As we finish singing, Reverend Tha Hgay launches into a long prayer remembering his family, the Karen community in Sweden and around the world, and even his travelling companion, myself. His grandchildren stir about the room eating their late night snack of sliced Swedish meatballs microwaved on flat rounds of white bread. At the conclusion, he scolds them for their lack of attention and stillness during the family prayer.
This 19th century hymn is Reverend Tha Hgay’s chosen anthem for our trip here in Sweden.  We sing it every evening before bed. Here I am asked to give up the control of my own time, which is usually a treasured part of my work in Comer. When we are to go to someone’s home for prayer or there is a Swedish elder or church leader coming to visit, it is expected that I will be present on short notice to share about Jubilee and the Karen community in Georgia.
Beyond those obligations I have plentiful free time to rest, run on the trails around Alingsås, and read in little coffee shops around town. There is something so freeing in doing nothing and giving up ownership of your time. As at odds as coffee and baked goods in a Swedish café feels to my usual lifestyle it is somehow becoming a birthplace for compassion. One month without the dreaded frequent phone call, “Na kluahh—Are you free?” is such a gift, and yet it makes me realize how hardened and short on patience I have become to such requests. With distance I see the savior complex that generates the fear of saying no.
…Luh pa meh nya ga htee plaw boo pweh daw bu…We will soon see the field full of rice.
I wonder how these 19th century hymns sound to the Karen youth coming of age eating pizza and speaking Swedish. Is there any nostalgia to rice paddies and casting seeds on the side of the road for those who might come after you fleeing through the jungle? Their new life of Scandinavian affluence and education feels quite distant from this simple worldview.
Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his agricultural classic: “To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary; to the extent that human society separates itself from a life close to nature, schooling becomes necessary. In nature, formal schooling has no function.”
I hear via email about my garden growing thousands of miles away with several good friends turning on the irrigation occasionally and pulling weeds while I am away. I remember the stressful rush to get everything planted before our departure, and give thanks now that plants do not grow with such grasping but by the miraculous gift of life bestowed by God slowly and without notice unless we take the time to see the genesis unfolding before us (or imagine it from overseas). Our indulgence of our ego is the greatest thing that separates us from our nature. Really we are not so important. Our work is not so much important as is our ability to receive the gift of life. The garden is one very good place to see this.
Reverend Tha Hgay’s priority is maintaining a unified Karen church across the new diaspora. These are the seeds he is planting here in Sweden, and they are certainly good news to many of the people here desiring connection with their family and friends in America. Agriculture and community are certainly a significant piece of why he settled with his family in Vesta, just a thirty-minute drive from Comer, but the larger vision is a new generation of Karen Baptists keeping the faith from Thailand to Scandinavia.
…Pwee tah luh tah hkee lah, pwee du mu law nu, pwee daw oh bwee ta ghay, du luh tah mah wee—Sow that which is good, sow until the sunset, sow and do not rest until the work is finished… “The younger white brother must guide us on the big steel bird,” Reverend Tha Hgay tells me, “this is the Karen proverb.” I look at him incredulously.
I want to see the Comer Karen community be able to thrive from a life giving agricultural livelihood. These are the seeds I want to plant. Whether or not they germinate is another matter. In order to plant these seeds I will orient my life in Comer more around the garden and community organizing and less around assisting families finding housing, accessing social services, and going to appointments. So much of this work is wound up in an economy that works against a simple agricultural livelihood. In order to invite the Karen into such a livelihood here I need to move more towards it myself.
Though it is ultimately the choice of resettled refugees themselves what culture they grow into, third country helpers play an important role in sowing these seeds. This is evident in the difference between Karen culture in Sweden and in America. It is important for those of us in these roles to be cognizant of our sowing and plant the seeds of a better society that we want to see grow rather than the seeds of our own cultural effluence (e.g. debt, materialism, workaholism, individualism, etc.) We cannot decide the germination of these seeds, but we can use the waste of our civilization to fertilize the ground for resettlement, and the emergence of a new culture. “To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and the plenitude of each day, every day—this must have been the original way of agriculture,” writes Fukuoka.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Beads of rain stream down the outer pane of the airplane window. I lean over the person in the middle seat to gaze out into the gray. The letters STOCKHOLM ARLANDA stand on a precipice, dimly illumined by backlighting and the glow of the sun rising behind the clouds. As a child I used to slide my finger down the nondescript gray terminal diagram of Arlanda in the back pages of the airline magazine. I would imagine myself coming down through the clouds in Sweden, with IKEA as my reference point. Perhaps it was this childhood fantasy returning to the surface when I said yes to Reverend Tha Hgay and his wife’s invitation to accompany them on their month-long trip to Sweden to visit their children and grandchildren resettled there.
We make our way through customs and board our connecting flight to Göteborg. When we arrive in the airport an Asian man with a Bluetooth earpiece stands waiting at the bottom of the escalator. “A weh may ya po kwa duh—He is my son!” declares Reverend Tha Hgay as he steps from the escalator and rushes towards the man. This is the first time he has seen his oldest son Ler Wah in seven years. A clean-cut young Asian man in a pea coat stands off to the side. “…And this is my grandson!” The young man holds out his hand to me, “I am Solomon.” “Zac,” I reply, thankful to meet someone my age who will be around for our stay.
Solomon came to Sweden with his family in 2008 at age twenty. The Swedish government placed them in Övertorneå in the north of Sweden along the border with Finland. He now lives with his uncle’s family in Alingsås, just outside of Göteborg in the south of Sweden. There are about five Karen families living in this quaint Scandinavian town of 25,000. Thirty minutes away in the neighboring town of Vårgårda there are another five or so Karen families. Solomon’s uncle works as caretaker for an incapacitated elderly man, however most Karen adults in the area are not working but, attending practicums in hopes of soon being hired. The Swedish government covers their living expenses.
We pull up in their Chevrolet hatchback to a dreary public housing complex. “Most of my friends from the camp who live in the U.S. are already married and having children,” he says. Most young Karen people in their twenties here in Sweden attend special schools to learn Swedish, vocational skills, or prepare for college. Educational opportunities in the U.S. are much more sparse for refugees resettled as young adults. Mostly if you are over 18 when you arrive in the U.S. it is straight to the chicken plant. Solomon can already speak Swedish and so after working for sometime in a school in the north, he is now training to be a taxi driver here in Alingsås.
We ascend a spiral staircase to the third-floor and enter a small, but tidy European apartment with two bedrooms and one bathroom. A toddler rushes to the door and gazes up with big eyes for the first time at his grandfather and grandmother. Ler Wah’s youngest son, Daniel, was born here in Sweden just two years ago. As Tha Hgay and Paw Hser settle in and delight in their newest grandchild, I follow Solomon and his two school-age cousins, Naw Ga Mwee and Thaw Eh Mwee out to the football yard behind their apartment building.
Black soil shows through the bald spots in the olive-colored winter grass. As we enter the field and begin kicking the ball around, a young African girl wearing a hijab comes to join us, followed shortly by a Congolese boy and two Serbian girls who look at me strangely. Solomon tells them something in Swedish. “Vad heter du?” the older Serbian girl asks me. “I don’t speak Swedish. I’m sorry,” I tell her. “What’s your name?” she asks again.

There is no Karen church in Sweden and so with a Karen pastor visiting the country, he naturally must visit every Karen home in Alingsås and Vårgårda to pray with the families. On Sunday Ler Wah’s family hosts a thanksgiving worship service in celebration of the birthdays of two of their children. Something they have not been able to do for quite some time. Solomon and I offer two songs for the service, one in English and another in Karen. Tha Hgay stands and preaches passionately to the living room full of Karen from the two neighboring locales. After the service there is a meal served. Solomon hands me a prepared plate with boiled potatoes, vegetable salad, and stewed beef with mushrooms. “No rice?” I ask in amazement. “Svenska a ta aw—Swedish food,” he responds with a smile, “Na aw beahh—Is it delicious?” “May, ya aw beh ra—Yes, it is very good!” I reply, “I have just never seen Karen people in the U.S. serve food like this.”

Just a few days before our departure from the U.S., Rev. Tha Hgay presided over a thanksgiving service at Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s house in celebration of Wisdom and Hae Tha Blay’s birthdays. The fare was typical of a Karen celebration. Hei Nay Htoo spent all day Saturday acquiring and butchering a pot-belly pig and a large goat, then stayed up all night next to the fire grilling pork and tending to bubbling cauldrons of goat meat and meh teh leh aye kah—goat shit soup.

A Karen man with a long face and a goatee sits on the couch across from me and picks at the marzipan and whipped cream on a slice of birthday cake. He looks at me sternly for a moment before starting abruptly in immaculate English, “After we get Swedish citizenship, do you know how difficult it is to get a work permit in the United States?”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jubilee Neighbors Summer Camp 2013

Now recruiting campers, counselors, junior counselors, and volunteers...
Contact me for registration and application forms.
See the flyer below for more information.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent Sermon

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 19:1-7
John 1:1-9

I recline on the damp gray carpet next to Hei Nay Htoo, the traffic of North Indian Creek Drive rushing like a gasoline brook outside of the open French doors. Thick summer air pours in from the balcony. Baw Baw lies sprawled on the dilapidated couch, provided by some church or resettlement agency, and now the primary home of several colonies of roaches.

“Can I make a doctor’s appointment for you?” I ask. She has been quite sick and not her usual self for the past few weeks.

“No. I will not go yet. I sick like this with Wonderful, Blay Blay, Hae Tha Blay, Ga Pu… ta blaw nya ee dee tho tho.

“You’re pregnant?”

Uh. Ya duh lee.”

Floored, I run to my room to find my English-Karen dictionary, thinking of all of the chaos of the past months while both parents were working, the many challenges of managing four kids, let alone another, and their intention to move back to Comer in just a few months. I flip the dictionary open to the C’s, and finding the page, I turn the book to face Baw Baw, pointing to the Karen word.

Na thay nyaahh? Do you know?”

Slightly insulted, she nods her head, “Ya thay nyaehh. Yes, I know. But we will have one more here. An American.”

This is the second Sunday in the season of advent, a time of anticipation for the arrival of our anointed one, our liberator. In Isaiah we hear a coronation liturgy for a new king who will restore Israel to glory. The text from Isaiah reveals a culture of expectation for an ideal worldly king, and God meets this expectation with the surprise of a helpless baby born in a feeding trough. The people who have walked in darkness, the darkness of domination, subjugation, and exile, have seen a great light, but perhaps not the light they had in mind. Though this baby is a king, his kingdom is not of this world and so we are not to prepare ourselves as such. The poet Rilke admonishes us:

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

We hear in the Psalm the way that all of creation proclaims the glory of God. Like the radiant heavens, an infant captures the attention of a people in the way that no politician ever will. As we prepare for Christmas we should be as expectant parents: eager, joyful, and terrified. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Before we know it the creator of the universe will be helpless in our arms, crying to be nursed, waiting to be nurtured into being. The birth that we anticipate is inseparable from its inconvenience. The news from the Angel Gabriel announcing Mary’s pregnancy, no doubt surprised her. She knew that this pregnancy would cause her great embarrassment as a young betrothed woman. But she received this news joyfully, as though pregnant with hope itself. She had faith that this unlikely humiliation would become her salvation.

Our scriptures this evening invite us to contemplate Christ coming into the world as a rising sun. The prologue to the gospel of John is reminiscent of God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis. This new light coming into the world illumines everything, enlightens everyone. “Nothing is hid from its heat,” the Psalmist sings. We can rejoice for this new warmth and clarity of vision, but this sun also exposes us as we are.

Thomas Merton writes, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” It is a time of preparation for our journey with the infant king into Lent. The birth of this child will completely reorient our lives, much as it did for his parents. We will grow together with this child. He will become a mirror for our condition and perhaps as he learns to crawl, walk, and speak, so will we also rediscover these simple pleasures and forget the complexities of the world with which we tire our spirits. A new parent can anticipate a kind of death in the arrival of a new child, but how much greater is that new life. Through this imminent birth, we realize a new reciprocity in our relationship with God. We are with God as day pouring into day, night pouring into night.

To love the one who comes in this season we must love the way in which he comes: poverty. The message coming to us this advent is one of a simple hope, an affirmation that life is sacred because it opens up infinite possibilities for human love and creativity. The holy interruption of a newborn reminds us of that even in the most impractical of circumstances. How much more so should our God who becomes our very own child, our Isaac, our lamb, our liberator, who in his vulnerability invites us to union with him. We who have become disenchanted with humanity must embrace the spiritual poverty of an infant and search for Christ crying out for us in the stable, the street, the dingy apartment. As we hold him in our arms we are invited into a new reality that Mary knew well. The creator of the stars at night dwells in us.

On Saturday April 14, 2012 I wake up late in the morning still caught in the slump of humiliation from being fired from the chicken plant the day before. Leaving my phone behind, I wander over to the Farmer’s Market. I arrive at Corey and Lauren’s market table and pick out a bundle of asparagus.

“Baw Baw is trying to call you. She said something about her stomach hurting,” Corey says.

I walk over to their little white house behind the gas station and open the door. Baw Baw comes into the kitchen, just barely able to walk, four excited children in tow.

Ya gaw na ta blu law lee. Na ta paw fone bah duh—I called you many times already, but you did not pick up your phone.

“Sorry. I left it at home. Did you call Sue?”

“Yes, but she come 10:30.”

“Ok. I will call her again.”

Sue pulls up in a van and helps Baw Baw in. We gather towels and clothes for them to take to the hospital, and the four kids and I watch as the car drives away. Russ and Christina agree to watch the kids while I call the chicken plant, and teave a message with Human Resources to deliver to Hei Nay Htoo, who is working overtime, that his son is being born and to wait outside for me to take him to the hospital.

Leaving the kids at Jubilee, I take off towards Athens. Upon arriving in the parking lot at the plant on Barber Street, my phone rings. Pa Saw Paw says Hei Nay Htoo is at her house in Comer looking for me. After uttering some frustrated words, I tell her to tell him to come back and meet me at the chicken plant, since the hospital is only a few blocks away. Twenty odd minutes later, we caravan to Athens Regional and find our way to the third floor. There, tightly packaged in a warm blanket in his mother’s arms, is Wisdom.


President Obama made a historic visit to Burma in November as the first U.S. president ever to visit the country. The streets filled with people to welcome him and sing his praises for spending six-hours in their long-closed country. Somehow he managed to make a speech at Rangoon University, meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in her compound, and make an offering in the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda within these six hours. His speech included an emphasis on the work ahead of deescalating ethnic conflicts and embracing ethnic diversity within the country, comparing the situation in Burma to the United States.

I recently read To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, a biography of Adoniram Judson. Judson was the first American foreign missionary and spent his life translating the Bible into Burmese and preaching the gospel in Burma. He departed with a fairly imperial attitude, bent on “converting the heathens,” but even from the beginning there is something quite profound about what he takes on. When he departed in 1812, he offered his entire life to Burma, expecting, quite reasonably never to return to the United States of America.
As a young man before the emergence of his Burma fixation, he was raised in a conservative Congregationalist culture in Massachusetts. In his studies however he came to consider himself a Deist and for a while had little interest in the church, until finally driven from doubt he returned to study theology. He later converted and became a Baptist.
Every page of To the Golden Shore details seemingly yet another hardship. Judson endured the deaths of his loved ones and closest companions time and time again, yet remained steadfast in his mission. His imperial impulse to “convert the heathens” certainly dismissed the spiritual grandeur of Buddhism, but Judson’s life work cannot be dismissed as such. While his language is offensive in our modern pluralist society, his mission was certainly a conversion experience for himself also. His spirituality took on a markedly mystical tone after the death of his first wife, Nancy. He often read the works of the French Catholic mystic Madame Guyon, and perhaps under this influence, withdrew into a dark and ascetic period of his life aimed at self-annihilation. At his most extreme he dug a grave and spent hours sitting in it contemplating his own death.

In the center of the monks’ quarters at Pathom Asoke, a Buddhist lay-monastic community in Thailand where I spent a month during college, there is a glass casket with a decomposing corpse and various gruesome photographs of bodies in the throws of death. This horrific shrine functions as an emblem of the three marks of reality: dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self).

Before the death of his first wife Nancy, Judson also spent a couple of years in the horrid conditions of a Burmese death prison during the war with the British because the Burmese became suspicious of all foreigners. While imprisoned, he concealed his Burmese translation of the Bible in his pillowcase.
What motivated his steadfast commitment to such a hostile land? It seems the same faith that smacked of intolerance grew within him a great love and intimate knowledge of the Burmese language and people, so much so that he was willing to suffer immeasurably for his mission. This is perhaps closer to the original meaning of the word “tolerance” from the Latin tolerantia, or “endurance.” The casting of one’s entire life away for the cause of a people not one’s own has a great deal to speak to us today of tolerance.
Our pluralist society offers the easy temptation of relativism, which propagates the myth that we can live together without really knowing each other: a dangerous path of intolerance. Christian and Buddhist tradition alike are meant to cultivate the practice of endurance: endurance for the suffering and dissatisfaction that we necessarily incur by living in community, by existing in relationship with other human beings.

Two centuries later, Adoniram Judson’s Christianity is returning to the United States with the Karen and other ethnic groups from Burma resettling as refugees. I sit on a frigid metal folding chair in a clearing in the pine forest gazing forward towards the stage built of from pine logs for the occasion and elaborately decorated with colorful garlands and streamers. Reverend Tha Hgay stands reading scriptures in Karen and English, his voice blaring over the poorly adjusted PA system. There are over two hundred people in attendance today for this year’s Christmas celebration.
The Karen own almost forty acres of pine forest off of a dirt road in the Vesta Community of rural Oglethorpe County. On this poor land, Reverend Tha Hgay, the chair of the Karen Baptist Church in the United States, dreams of establishing a mission school to raise up young Karen leaders to engage in ministry to their people here in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the land has four family homes and countless small shacks and cabins erected from felled pines. It is quickly developing into a village of sorts, with doublewides and singlewides rather than bamboo houses. In July of 2013, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Judson’s arrival in Rangoon, Reverend Tha Hgay intends to enact his dream with the support of Karen communities nationwide and a faculty from as far away as Burma. He is personally inviting me to be a student.

While excited about the Karen self-empowerment of this project. I also fear it regressing into some kind of backwoods fundamentalism. With the bloody and exploitative history of Christendom, what space is there for missions? Yet we who would practice Christianity in the West and travel the road of tolerance will be sent, perhaps not to a foreign land but instead to our own neglected backyard. There is in post-Christendom perhaps a space for a negative missiology: a sending that positions us to receive.