Friends in First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois: greetings from Chiang Mai, Thailand as we enter the Year of Our Lord 2020. This begins the two hundredth year since the Presbyterian form of Christianity began to shed its influence on the several Altons between where the Illinois River and the Missouri River flow into the mighty and sometimes terrible Mississippi.
Presbyterian preachers found hospitality with pioneer farmer Enoch Long in 1820 and formed a church in June 1821. That church did not thrive but Enoch Long and his family testified ever after that they remained loyal Presbyterians in Upper Alton and joined a second attempt that was more successful. In 1831 a second First Presbyterian Church was organized of which you are the present members.
Threats to Presbyterian ministry and mission recurred. The most dire began in 1837 when opposition to abolition of slavery along with land speculation threatened the church and the martyrdom of the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy led to a financial crisis that nearly wiped out the town and bankrupted the state.
Still the church endured, boosted by several revivals.
During the century 1870 to 1970 First Presbyterian Church of Alton was one of the leading churches in Alton, with community leaders and gentry among its 1200 members at its peak. This congregation was the presbytery’s largest contributor to the world-wide work of the Presbyterian Church for many years in a row. First Presbyterian Church was instrumental in establishing 7 other churches. There were more than 400 children in Sunday school, more than 30 women’s meetings a month, and five large choirs. Perhaps most impressive was the influence of the church on such community enterprises as the YMCA, YWCA, Chautauqua, and later organizations providing services to the community.
Throughout these years of influence and accomplishment there were slumps: the Great Depression, the departure of glass and steel industries, and then the fire that destroyed the sanctuary in 1988.
Meanwhile, the tide was turning for Presbyterians everywhere in America. First came the split over ordination of women, then shifts of priorities that eroded the importance of Sunday morning, and pretty soon churches began to close.
In Alton the list of closed churches now includes all the Presbyterian churches except this one. It is the same all over. In my home town where there were 3 Presbyterian churches, now there is one; all the rural Methodist churches are closed and the three United Methodist Churches in town are also reduced to one.
For a while it looked like mega-churches would emerge to meet the needs of a new generation, but there are no mega churches drawing 10 thousand participants anywhere between the south suburbs of Chicago and Little Rock. That and many other hopes are fading.
As we look at our empty pews and aging faithful, it is tempting to despair about the Christian enterprise in America. This brings me back to an inspiring insight from the Old Testament prophet Haggai.
In about the year 520 BC the prophet persuaded the refugees who lived on the rubble of the destroyed city of Jerusalem to re-build a temple. Not long into this project, depression again overwhelmed the builders. The oldest among them could probably remember the splendor of Solomon’s wonderful temple. Even the youngest could see the immense foundation stones of that temple on which they were erecting nothing more than a holy hut.
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord … for I am with you. …My Spirit abides among you, fear not.”
Take courage, fear not.
That is not easy advice to take, nor should it be glibly given. Anyone looking around Alton today can see almost a score of closed churches. No one can promise that any particular church will survive the next 50 years. What has happened to churches in Alton in the past 50 years was unexpected and would have been unthinkable in 1970.
Still, “fear not.” Thirty years ago these words were proclaimed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church, “There is no evidence at all, that God has ever abrogated the promise of his presence from us. There is not a shred of proof that God has decided to withdraw his Spirit, and let us drift into insignificance. Quite the contrary. Time after time in the history of this congregation God has intervened to rescue it. God has proved his love for this church in every generation. In ways that witnesses professed to be miraculous, God has inspired people to contribute money for a succession of buildings. In every decade God has moved people and initiated groups in this church to accomplish work that has changed the course of lives and even nudged the city and the region. On a daily basis we have seen the hand of God working to guide, to correct, to affirm and to encourage this church. There is no sensible conclusion, then, that God’s promise is less believable than any temporary evidence of decline. The substantial fact is God’s irrevocable word, backed by decades of repeated confirmation, that God loves this church.”
If I were to speak of this now, after thirty years, I would add, “The four buildings that housed First Presbyterian Church since 1820 have been useful, but they are not what God was doing. Nor, is all that God was doing called “Presbyterian.” It is God’s work, begun here long before settlers migrated here, that will continue. It is enough that we know we have an important share of that work to do in our time.”
What God is going to do with this church is “beyond our ken,” as our Scottish forebears put it. We can hope that this lovely building will continue to be useful and appreciated. We can imagine still another “season of revivals” as we had at the turn of the 20th century. But we cannot foresee what God has foreordained and set in motion. We entirely over-rate the importance of what we think we see. For, of all the inscrutable mysteries that engulf us, the ability of our senses to deceive us is perhaps the greatest.
We can succumb to pessimism or we can affirm the promise of Scripture and the evidence of the past two centuries.
“I am [still] with you,” the Lord says. “My Spirit abides with you. Fear not.”
Postscript: Although this is an unsolicited sermon being sent to the congregation I served as pastor thirty years ago, in a larger sense it is a metaphor for all churches in Europe, North America, and elsewhere.
A year ago I made several “grim predictions.” It was my plan to review them on New Year’s Day and see if my track record was as good as Prof. Trelawney’s was in predicting Harry Potter’s demise, including foreseeing a deadly “Grim” in his tea leaves.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2019
1. The coronation of the King of Thailand on May 4-6, together with national elections and the ratification of a new constitution will consolidate the power of the military-royal alliance.
This prediction was more than fulfilled. Thailand now has a complete military-royalist government with many constitutional balances of power and restrictions set aside.
2. The US government will enter a time of crisis ... Donald Trump is losing the support he needs to stay on top. Time is running out on Trump and his dwindling backers.
Although investigations strongly indicate that the Trump administration is flawed and US foreign policy is a shambles, and the US House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment, significant crumbling of Trump’s support has not materialized.
3. 2019 will feature a major re-eruption of abortion battles but the swing is away from the radical right in Europe and America.
No major new initiatives on abortion “erupted” during the past year.
4. My grim prediction for 2019 is that the USA [economy] will pass a tipping point from which it will not recover. This may not be the onset of another economic depression, but it could be a big policy blunder like letting the national debt escalate to the point that borrowers of US dollars disappear and creditors begin to collect US gold, or failure (again) to hold financial magnates accountable at some critical juncture.
My score on this is C: the US economy remains apparently strong and China’s economy is weaker than years past, posing no immediate threat to the USA. But the US debt is skyrocketing under the present administration. Only the Brexit shadow over the European Union has kept investors cautious about withdrawing from the USA.
5. As for Christianity, 2019 will bring still more shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere. In 2019 the United Methodist Church will have its turn. It will be the year they make the choice of which side to take.
Sadly, the United Methodist Church voted to split (not in so many words, of course). The UM conferences in the northern hemisphere were outnumbered by Methodists in Africa and the Philippines when votes were counted on allowing LGBT members to have equity. Splits are inevitable. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC in the USA estimated in a September 2019 speech that the UMC would lose between 3400 and 7500 churches of a total of some 42,000.
6. Higher education is in jeopardy. 2019 will see several closures or mergers of high-profile institutions of higher education.
The decline is slower than I predicted. After decades of increasing numbers of colleges and universities, the USA is now losing about 100 degree granting institutions of higher education a year, and the rate is accelerating. But no high-profile closures or mergers were reported in 2019.
THINGS I FAILED TO PREDICT FOR 2019
1. Public support for action on climate change has been building all year. First, Greta Thunberg swept into the spotlight on center stage and mobilized millions of marchers while getting a Nobel Prize nomination and being named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Despite government reluctance and even obstacles, public support has grown. Second, historic wildfires and heat in Australia have moved that country into the front line.
2. The Conservative Tory Party in Great Britain won a stunning election and reinforced their mandate to leave the European Union. Nationalist populism shows no signs of diminishing. Hungary, Turkey, India – the list is growing rather than shrinking.
CAUTIOUS AND CHASTENED PREDICTIONS FOR 2020
1. I join Noam Chomsky in predicting that Donald Trump will win a second term as President of the United States. Chomsky and I would love to see Bernie Sanders’s momentum continue, but “THE FEAR” of socialism is too great. As long as that label sticks, as it is sticking and not even being fought, the reality is the vote against Sanders will prevail and suck the strength out of the vote against Trump.
2. In Thailand projects will multiply to normalize the reign of the new King despite royal confiscation of finances, and palace actions being taken to obliviate vestiges of democracy and remove memorials to those who brought about the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
3. The Church of Christ in Thailand will face possible humiliation and governmental scrutiny as one after another of the present administration’s decisions are investigated. Already, administration of Bangkok Christian College has been taken over by a commission appointed by the Thai Ministry of Education. These threats have reduced the CCT’s ability to respond to its on-going mission.
4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive nationalism in India will either backfire as ethnic-religious minorities unite to oppose infringement of their civil rights and status, or international opposition will materialize as the specter of massive militant Hinduism again looms over South Asia.
On Christmas I “joined” the congregation of the Washington Cathedral for their midnight Eucharist at which the Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, the Right Reverend Mariann Budde delivered the Christmas homily. It was inspirational, insightful, and interesting. It “worked,” I thought, reverting to my seminary-teacher mode.
But why did it work? Why do some sermons work and others do not?
This is a question I pose not only for Christian preachers but for Buddhist and other preachers, as well as those who listen to preaching.
There is one absolutely indispensible component for a successful preaching event: the listeners must be imbued with the foundational narrative as it relates to their existential context. In this case, the congregation in the cathedral and on-line (as was I) must know the Christmas story and find it currently and personally important. There is a link the preacher must make between the story that people know and how it relates to what’s going on.
As to the Christmas Story, we Christians have that memorized. We know it by heart, at least the outline. It’s about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, having trouble finding lodging in the inn, birthing the baby Jesus in an animal shelter, shepherds hearing angels singing and visiting the holy family, and then three wise men (kings?) on camels seeing a star and coming to worship the new king they have read about, and then evil Herod trying to kill the baby but Joseph taking the family and escaping to Egypt in the nick of time.
The story can almost be taken for granted, as long as the audience is familiar with it. Christmas worship can then safely include symbolic references to the basic story. A star hanging from the rafters of a cathedral or stuck on top of a Christmas tree needs little explanation. Plaster sheep or children dressed as shepherds fit into the picture. Songs create a familiar emotional tone.
Nevertheless, there are levels of meaning that can be explored … or not. Many Christmas services and most other Christmas events do not explore very deeply beneath the surface. Oh, there is a predictable anguish about how the real meaning of Christmas has been diverted by Santa and by commercialism. We try to get back to that real story with our candles and carols. But if the story is to be successfully probed for deeper meaning (that is, if the sermon is to “work”) it must connect the dots between what happened in Bethlehem some 2020 years ago and what’s going on right here and now.
Bishop Budde’s homily was a splendid example of how to do it. She began by reminding everyone of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s heart-rending Christmas letter from prison to his family. She mentioned, then, her main point, that there is always a gap between what is and what could be. We feel that keenly on Christmas, but Christmas addresses that, because Christmas is all about a growth of awareness that God dwells with us. The STORY, she reminded us shows this gap, and how God comes to us to deal with it. The gap is seen in ourselves where we know we are not as we could be. It is in our family circle where there are divisions. In our community life we are polarized – ah, now she is particularizing a social condition. At the end she expanded her application to the whole world.
Her sermon was pastoral, befitting her office whose symbol is a shepherd’s staff. It was not prophetic, denouncing the causes of the gap, but persistently announcing the solution as the main fact of Christmas. When speaking to people who know the Christmas story, it is expected to go deeper into what it means that God has come among us. Christmas is the beginning point and the ending point of the Bishop’s sermon. It was the context and the content of the whole service and what had brought the congregation to fill the National Cathedral at midnight.
The sermon “worked” because the issue of gap and brokenness which is both universal and particular is consistent with the Story as everyone thinks of it. “Yes,” we respond, “there certainly was a gap between what God was doing in Bethlehem and what the government was doing.” And there still is this gap between what God is doing with Jesus and what governments are doing.
What would it be like to preach on Christmas to a congregation who did not have the shared narrative of Christmas instilled in their minds? I have done that. In that case the homiletical task is quite different. Without Christmas as the unifying context and without the Christmas story to build on, the elements of a typical Christmas remain fragmentary and attached to individuals’ random and diverse meanings. The dots stay mostly unconnected.
Most preachers would probably begin by introducing the Christmas story. “Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus.” The idea would be to expand the audience’s knowledge, in hopes that some would “catch” or remember something. Maybe the benefit would be bridge-building between the audience and Christians living nearby. Preaching a Christmas sermon to a non-Christian audience would be a long-shot. It is hard to make it “work” at a deeper level because the audience does not have “the foundational narrative.”
It is the same reason that tourists in Thailand tend to miss the whole point of a Buddhist sermon. The narrative context is missing for them as well as the social context. A Buddhist sermon loses a large part of its purpose if the congregation does not imagine themselves to be an extension of audiences who gathered to implore the Buddha to tell them how to overcome suffering. A Buddhist preacher will be most successful if the audience is a cohesive community and the preacher is an integral part of it.
Most Buddhist funeral sermons, for example, assume that the fundamental story is shared by everyone, and that what is needed is an interpretation of how to overcome the multiple anxieties that death arouses. Both the sermon and the funeral event combine to do that. It is not strictly necessary for a Buddhist funeral sermon to be intellectually stimulating, or even fully understood. Some sermons are mostly chanted in a way that the congregation simply knows “that’s good, it’s just what it’s always been.” Anxiety subsides.
A Christian Christmas celebration works that way to some extent. It is not strictly necessary for there to be a sermon. A cantata or pageant can renew the narrative. The Eucharist is supposed to do that surpassingly. The sermon is only successful in a context of understanding. Life is messy, but there is help nearby. The whole worship event communicates “it’s going to turn out well.”
REMEMBERING CHRISTMAS OF 1989
Preface: The week before Christmas in 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe felt velvety and joyful, the bloodiest revolution of all raged in Romania. Then, on December 22, it seemed it could be over, but the news was slow to reach into the mountains.
A fine dusting of snow filtered down on the village of Borsa-Dej. Pastor Laszlo gazed out through the diamond-shaped panes in the windows of the parsonage wing of the Reformed Church. His breathtaking view of Mount Pietrosu was almost obscured by the flurries. In this Carpathian valley every winter day was nearly always overcast, and the weather every Christmas Eve was ominous as well – as was the outlook for the days to come, because Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and every day, were days of stifled dreams and repressed ambition. The sheep herders and timber cutters of Borsa-Dej had never known anything else than being under the iron fist of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis, and then the Communists.
For four decades the Christmas Eve service was the only time the Reformed congregation ever dared to gather, except on Sunday morning. And for two of those decades, every Christmas Eve Pastor Laszlo watched from his pulpit as Nicu Hoge stood in the back corner of the sanctuary taking notes on every word the Pastor said, and carefully recording who came to church. It was as if the two of them, at opposite ends of the room, were on opposite sides of Borsa-Dej, one a communist representing hostility to religion, and the other a Christian pastor, representing a holy mystery that somehow threatened to destroy political oppression on a night like this. There were too many candles, and too much singing of angels and of God, for tyranny to stand it.
“Comrade Nicu, in your report tell them how the Christians of Borsa-Dej love Jesus,” Pastor Laszlo had said last Christmas Eve as the informer had brushed past him on his way out of the church building.
But this year the snow flurries were lighter than usual, and even the faint silhouette of Mt. Pietrosu was briefly bathed in an orange and lavender glow from the setting sun, as Pastor Laszlo allowed himself to be transformed by the wonder of the events of the last week. Most of the time their remote village was ignored by the powers that played games in distant cities, but, Pastor Laszlo well knew, at least by the time the snow-packed mountain passes had melted in the spring, some effects of their maneuvers would drift up to Borsa-Dej. How long would it take this time, Pastor Laszlo wondered, for the tremendous news he had heard over the static on his radio to make this latest change felt in their remote valley? And what would be the first sign of the change?
On his lap a tattered Bible lay open to the words from the Christmas story, “And on earth PEACE….” It was the need for peace that sent tears streaming once again down the pastor’s cheeks. News had come of the slaughter of children and innocents by the hundreds. Even there in Borsa-Dej, where they had never seen an army tank, Pastor Laszlo could imagine the sight of their firing down a street filled curb to curb with people carrying flags. “What flag?” he mused. The national tri-colors … with the communist emblem snipped from its center, as if it had been ripped out by one of the tank’s bullets on its way into the crowd. Pastor Laszlo imagined the scene, mist in his eyes, as mist began to enshroud Mount Pietrosu. He envisioned, too, how the soldiers would have been sent around the public square to toss the dead into trucks like cord-wood to be dumped into a ditch and covered by a bull-dozer. Finally, Pastor Laszlo formed a picture in his mind of how his fellow pastors in less remote places must have been attacked over the last few weeks of the hideous crack-down. Some of them must have broken legs and burnt skin that results from an interrogation by the secret police. The revolution, after all, had first broken out in a Reformed Church in Timisoara.
As the grey-green forests grew dark outside Pastor Laszlo’s window, the faces of Elena and Corneliu Ratescu floated into his memory. This very night marked the second anniversary of their disappearance. Such a happy couple, Laszlo thought, the brightest and best of Borsa-Dej. That is, of course, why they were sucked into the mindless bureaucracy of government service and relocated far from their beloved mountains. It was the government’s prime ploy to rip people out of the places they love, and apart from the people they love, and into settings where they are helpless and forced to live with people they do not know. Even so, the spirit of such a couple as Elena and Corneliu was not so easily extinguished. For five years, they almost flourished as accountants and shift managers in a factory producing farm equipment to harvest hay. Their work, they wrote home, reminded them of the mountainside hay fields in the Carpathians near their village. And the people with whom they worked, they reported, also had spirits, once you got to know them. Such spirits, evidently, drew them into church on Christmas Eve where they were neatly set upon by the police. For two years there had been only silence.
Whatever had happened to Elena and Corneliu Ratescu could well become the stories of all the souls of Borsa-Dej, they thought last Christmas Eve. Village after village was being relocated into urban concrete apartment towers, layer on layer, like bees in hives. The government, of course, cast no thought to the matter of their village relationships, their love of the mountains bred in over a thousand years of living there, nor their native devotion to the Lord God and the stone church in which every important event of their lives was celebrated. One by one, already a thousand or more villages had been abandoned and then leveled so the people could not be tempted to return.
But, if the incredible bits and pieces Laszlo heard over the radio proved to be true, all that might be over. It was being said, if he heard correctly, that the nightmare of the dictatorship was ending. There was even news, now, that in a dozen other countries vast changes were sweeping out tyrannies and letting in the wind of freedom.
Pastor Laszlo breathed in the air from his room. He imagined it felt freer inside his lungs than it had felt. But this feeling alone was not the confirmation he needed after so many years and disappointments, in order to dare to allow his emotions to feel free and his soul to feel ecstatic gratitude. That must come in some other way. But what would the sign be that even tiny Borsa-Dej was now liberated?
The snow had become more than a crystalline mist. Fat silvery flakes were bouncing on the beams of light that stabbed the darkness outside his window. Now that the day was over, as evening came, it was time to celebrate Christmas. And, even though the thrilling thoughts of freedom from fear and peace on earth would not go away, it was time to open the church doors to receive the villagers’ annual pilgrimage.
Inside the chapel the candles were ready for lighting and the nativity scene was arrayed in front of the communion table. There, solid Joseph, radiant Mary, and the Christ-child lying in a manger with chubby arms reaching toward heaven were in place as they had been every Christmas since a woodcarver had brought them down from his Carpathian cabin high up on Mount Pietrosu one Christmas Eve a hundred and thirty years ago. That loving generosity had initiated a Christmas tradition in the Reformed Church of Borsa-Dej. From then on, people had brought an offering for the Christ-child every Christmas Eve, some carved trinket, or a sack of grain, or a jar of preserves. It was a love offering that Pastor Laszlo shared with those of the parish who needed an extra measure of love.
Reassured that everything was in place and ready, Laszlo reached for a rope hanging from a hole in the ceiling of the vestibule and began to heave on it. Gently, the stentorian toll of the great bell in the tower began to remind the faithful that the Christ-child was waiting for them. After several minutes of ringing, more than usual perhaps, because of the excitement in his heart that threatened to break out at any moment, Pastor Laszlo went back to collect his thoughts and to pull on his antique black robe with its high frilled white collar of the Reformed faith. Nicola Botez had climbed the tiny stairs into her nest above the back doorway where the organ was hung, and she was filling the room with sounds of Christmas.
There was no doubt of the signs of Christmas, Laszlo reflected. But what would be the signs of “Peace on earth?” Laszlo half expected angels to announce the advent of this peace with its new liberty, or perhaps the dazzling glory of a star from the East penetrating into the chapel itself. He was prepared, it seems, for any scene but the one that presented itself to him.
As Pastor Laszlo stepped into the pulpit of the church of Borsa-Dej, Comrade Nicu was not standing in his customary place. For twenty-three years, Comrade Nicu had stood in the back of the church every Christmas eve transcribing the pastor’s comments and recording the names of every worshipper.
At Laszlo’s appearance, Nicola pounced into the familiar beginning of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” so that the faithful of Borsa-Dej could process to the manger with their Christmas love offerings. In the midst of all the commotion, the door at the back of the chapel opened unnoticed by everyone except Pastor Laszlo who was ensconced in the elevated pulpit. Onto the end of the procession came three people whom Laszlo did not recognize until he got a better look at them, Nicu Hoge with Corneliu and Elena Ratescu.
By now the whole assembly was watching them as they found their way to the holy family. There from the folds of his long green coat Comrade Nicu extracted a ponderous sheaf of twenty-three reports on yellow paper from his twenty-three years of vigilance. These reports would never find their way into any investigations nor into any police file, for at the manger he filed them with Jesus. Then, for the first time in his twenty-three years, Nicu Hoge bent down to kiss the forehead of the infant in the manger.
Laszlo admitted at last that the static-distorted message he had heard from the radio and the much clearer message from his tattered book of Luke were both true. Corneliu and Elena were back home in Borsa-Dej in the mountains they loved. The war against the innocents must be over as well. Even men like Nicu Hoge were free to love Jesus, and after years of secrecy, to show their love. There was no need for another sign. Pastor Laszlo had seen the sign in Borsa-Dej that God has pronounced, “Peace on earth.”
Postscript: This story was written for the Christmas Eve service of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, before the amazement diminished that the Soviet Union had ended and the Cold War was over. Of all the final acts by the dictators, the atrocity during the days before Christmas inflicted on hostage children in Bucharest by the Ceausescus was the bloodiest. On Christmas Day the tyrants were shot by a firing squad.
After 30 years it is growing hard to remember how astounding and difficult it was to believe the nightmare was probably over. Our forgetfulness comes with a risk. Again we seem to be forgetting what life was like when dictators ruled.
[The picture above is of the Calvinist Church in Dej. The story imagines Borsa-Dej as a smaller village than any of the real towns of Borsa or Dej. The characters are imaginary, but the setting is as authentic as I could compose from news on the three days before Christmas 1989.]
A couple of weeks ago my Facebook posts were loaded with a shocking set of pictures. I have posted one of them so you can get the idea. Clearly, SANTA’S REINDEER ARE LOST! They were photographed wandering around in downtown Alton, Illinois. I was a resident of Alton 25 years ago and I can testify that in nearly a decade, winter or summer, we never saw a single reindeer or any other kind of deer wandering around in front of the library in the business district. So, even though the deer population in Illinois has reportedly risen dramatically, there can be no doubt at all these reindeer are lost!
It isn’t fog that did it to them, as in the 1939 tale told by a Montgomery and Ward ad-man, so that Santa called upon sad Rudolph to lead his sleigh that night. The song based on the little story has become so well known, and cartoon versions so universal, that it is no longer acceptable to talk of just 8 reindeer, named by Clement Moore in his poem published first on December 23, 1823. There now have to be 9, led by the most famous reindeer of all even if the night is clear as it was in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as Phillips Brooks remembered it from his visit on Christmas Eve in 1865. He said that the night was the same as the night Christ was born. The sky was filled with silent stars and then broke “the everlasting Light,” seen first as a star guiding Magi from afar with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Santa brings the gifts now, with a lot of assistance, but it’s still up to him and his reindeer WHO ARE WANDERING AROUND, LOST!
But I have a concrete solution.
We all know that things have expanded since 1823 when Moore described the reindeer as “tiny” and Santa as “a little old driver” and “a right jolly old elf.” Thomas Nast, the most famous cartoonist of the 19th century, depicted Santa Claus as an elfish fellow, but that would never do. Someone is needed between miniature and gigantic, as is the star in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That immense balloon-size Santa would never fit onto a throne in a shopping mall, much less get down a chimney. In fact, by the middle of the 20th century the chimney thing was glossed over, except for stockings hung carefully close by if there is a fireplace. No, Santa has grown. Santa needs to be human-size in order to help sell things. The classical pictures were in advertisements by Coca Cola. There is no doubt what scale Santa was, because everyone knows what size a bottle of Coke is. So there you are.
It’s time to get over the notion that bulky Santa could be gotten aboard a tiny sleigh. The sleigh would have to be both big and able to navigate in climates without snow. If the climate keeps getting warmer as it is now, there might not be snow on rooftops pretty soon. I think Santa has abandoned rooftop landings as he has his slimming diet.
Just this week I saw the group of sleigh or wagon pullers a Santa needs around here. No worries, mate, reindeer lost? Here’s your substitutes….
WHO ARE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Never, since 1492, has the question been so hotly debated, “Who are indigenous people and what difference does it make?” The Persians and the Greeks accommodated indigenous people in ways that would bewilder Europeans voting for Brexit, North Europeans scared of an influx of Syrians and Turks, and white Americans building a wall because they don’t live on an island. Thanksgiving in the USA, the coming election, and the challenging season of Advent and Christmas turn spotlights on indigenous and migratory human movements and challenge the sentiment that one ethnicity must be dominant at least within a particular boundary.
The harsher name for ethnicity is tribalism. It is this that has become the actual rationale for pretty much all geo-political action since … well … a long time. Just since World War Two, which could have ended international imperialism, and since the end of the Soviet Empire 30 years ago, ethnic cleansing and re-emergent tribalism have murdered millions and brought the world to the brink of insanity and (arguably) extinction.
Back to the more limited topic of who are indigenous people and what they want. How can you tell? Who, for instance, is “indigenous” in the picture that accompanies this essay?
This week Cliff Sloane provided an article written by Ian G. Baird, entitled “Indigenous Peoples of Thailand: A contradictory interpretation” published in Asia Dialogue, a journal of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute. Baird’s contradictory interpretation is that movements for indigenous rights and restitution are limited to areas where settler colonizers moved in overwhelming numbers and blotted out the indigenous culture and often most of the indigenous people. He laments that the Thai government avoids efforts to focus on indigenous sub-cultures while in other places (such as the USA and Australia) survivors and descendents have begun to try to reclaim some of what their ancestors lost. But in places where the in-migration was not across “salt water” the idea of some people being indigenous and not others has not taken hold. [Baird’s article is worth study if you are interested in Thailand’s ethnic issues, but it is also relevant to what is also going on world-wide.]
I have no intention of disputing Baird. I think he is right. I just want to mention that there are additional reasons why the idea of indigenization (and race, for that matter) evades the every-day consciousness of people around here and different ways of measuring progress aside from what the government is doing on paper.
(1) HM King Bumiphol, Rama IX (whose birthday December 5 is a national holiday and “Father’s Day”) and his mother made a very large impact on gaining status of many kinds for ethnic minorities in Thailand. They spent decades expanding commercial options and government services to marginalized people. Without them the country would still be ignoring ethnic diversity in favor of centralized cultural dominance and the accompanying opportunities for government entities to exploit these people. The work, however, is unfinished although the momentum toward fuller acceptance continues.
(2) Cultural centralization is increased by the general preference of oncoming generations of people from ethnic backgrounds to enter the financial mainstream and gain its advantages of security and comfort. They may still wear ethnic items of clothing, but ethnic culture is selective and optional for them if they can pull it off. The drive is to get language, education, and vocations to join the mainstream. The idea of ancestral lands and customs being buried and stolen is hardly remarked on. In fact, regardless of historical reality, most ethnic minorities passively accept the idea that their lands really belong to a higher entity and they have moved uninvited onto it from where they actually belong. The motive for this forgetfulness is that they feel identified with people whose demographic center and cultural base is elsewhere. “Our people are over there.” Historical reality is that they have lived where they are for several generations and when they moved there the area was dominated by an entirely different military power than the one that claims sovereignty at present.
(3) When it comes to drafting legislation and national policy, political action to accommodate ethnic sub-cultures and minority religions inevitably bogs down when it becomes apparent that whatever is done must also apply to those in the southernmost provinces. The Muslim population in the 3 provinces bordering Malaysia has never been reconciled to the military and political take-over of their Pattani Sultanate by the Bangkok government 150 years ago. The least that must be done is to acknowledge their religious rights. This sometimes works to the advantage of minorities, holding the zealous majority at bay from such things as declaring Buddhism the only national religion, but often simply results in the parliamentary political conclusion, "We're not going to touch that, yet." So the government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without being able to specify what to do about those rights.
(4) Baird makes an excellent argument for seeing the drive for making ethnic cultural rights official as being restricted mostly to places where settler colonialism took place, whereas elsewhere it has been common to disregard cultural minorities because "they are just varieties of us, after all, deep down." "Just more of us" breaks down, of course, when things like full citizenship or property rights are opposed for "some of us" who are really "actually them." Meanwhile, some of the old ways are being neglected, and cultural knowledge is slipping. Nostalgia is a motive to hang onto some of it, and commercial possibilities tend to help. When ethnic textiles or household utensils become marketable, it’s considered a “win” and hardly anybody objects that the products have to be repurposed to sell. At the base, where it matters most that an ethnic culture is valued and fought for is whether the language, activities of daily life, and opportunities for children growing up are thought to be better inside the ethnic culture or not.
(5) If the dominant culture begins to lose its allure, especially if there is rot perceived in its elite, previously subjected sub-cultures may re-emerge. As time goes on, for example, Lanna history and mores are being reasserted and the prevailing narrative of the North being rescued by Bangkok is being disputed more openly. This ability to tell a different story about how Lanna was conquered rather than liberated, in the face of fierce opposition by the story-spinners in Bangkok, is ironically enabled in part by the momentum that continues to sustain and empower other ethnic cultures whose people are even more easily identifiable as immigrants. As Karen (Paw-ka-yaw) and Hmong communities gain civil rights and yet sustain pride in their ethnicity, the idea of being proud of diversity takes root. National unity does not HAVE to mean cultural subjection.
Finally, this is a timely seasonal reflection. For Christians, Advent leading to Christmas is a reminder of the intention to create a different kind of realm. Kingdom was a term of the era in which Jesus was advocating the things that now come under the heading of human rights and human unity. Political powers, kings and Caesar, were not going to do the job of valuing human life differently. Only a divinely inspired grassroots respect for diversity and inclusion have the potential needed.
Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (according to The Guardian), this week accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing “a poison [anti-Semitism] sanctioned from the top,” and urged all Jews in Britain to vote for Boris Johnson in the forthcoming general election. “The soul of the nation is at stake,” the rabbi declared, placing the political issue well within the bounds of religion. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, appearing to agree with the rabbi, tweeted that there is a “deep sense of insecurity and fear by many British Jews.” It was the latest kerfuffle on both sides of the Atlantic, in which religion and politics have been mixed. The mass media in Britain gleefully spent the next few days distorting the mess by “straightening out” what the politicians and religious leaders meant.
What was going on, as always, was entirely political. Rabbi Mirvis was being political in his charge that Jews would be threatened by a Labour government led by Corbyn.
We from the USA know how that goes. In Washington DC there is more religion mixed in politics than at any time in living memory. Everyone from residents in the White House to judges in Alabama quotes religious reasons for making political decisions. It is not, presently, a winning strategy to advocate a strict separation of church and state.
On the other hand, it is one thing for politicians to use religion when they want to put icing on some confection they are concocting, and quite another thing for religious leaders to resort to politics. Even current religious scions from families with famous names such as Falwell and Graham are usually at least a little careful how they word such things as their call to pray for the President because “he’s under attack as no President has ever been.” But a week ago Franklin Graham declared, in an interview as the impeachment hearings ended, that those who oppose Donald Trump are “demon possessed.” Demons are far inside religious discourse, but the comment was completely political. Nobody, surely, misunderstood Graham to mean there are actual demons infesting every single one who disagrees with the President, but US evangelical leaders have drifted farther into politics than anyone would have imagined just a few months ago.
What do people think of this?
The Pew Research Center on November 15, 2019 reported that 63% of those polled agree that “churches and houses of worship should stay out of politics,” whereas only 36% thought “churches and houses of worship should express views on social/political questions. When it comes to endorsing candidates (as the Chief Rabbi did), US opinion is even more one sided: 76% of US citizens polled said “NO” when asked to agree with the statement, “During political elections churches and houses of worship should come out in favor of one candidate or another.” Only 23% said YES.
So, should pastors, preachers, priests and pontiffs tell people how to vote or not?
It is not a remote hypothetical question. It is a contentious issue right now, and as elections draw near it is growing more so. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield Illinois also doesn’t hold back from warning Catholics they can be excommunicated for voting for people who refuse to oppose abortion or who are sinfully in love with people of the same sex.
A moderate “keep your distance” point of view was posted on-line just yesterday (as I write this). “Faith leaders have a duty to respect the intelligence and freedom of their co-religionaires by keeping out of such matters [i.e. advising congregants how to vote].” Presumably it’s OK to talk about things like justice as long as it’s kept abstract, or at least not pasted onto a characterization of an individual running for office.
Nevertheless, two friends, one an English Episcopalian priest and the other a Presbyterian pastor in American, have been posting things daily on social media lambasting Boris Johnson and the Tories and Donald Trump and the Republicans.
Contentious social issues and divisive political issues can be examined from religious as well as political perspectives. Human slavery is not only inhumane and unjust, it is sinful. That is settled. We may not, as a human race, have ended all slavery but we have decided we should try to do it. We’ve moved on to newer contentious issues in need of being worked out.
It is unclear (at least to me) that these things will be worked out by sorting out the principles rather than measuring popular opinion. Sometimes it is just not possible to decide a matter until the full effects of a course of action or a political faction are becoming clear and clearly devastating. In that way 20th Century Fascism was not wrong until its results were so undeniable that sufficient opposition was generated to go to war against it. Soviet Communism, on the other hand, ended when the Soviet leadership concluded it could no longer be afforded because it was devastating the Russian economy (Gorbachev withdrew military support for Soviet satellite states because the money was needed to build Russia). Clear consequences can be convincing.
Perhaps the ethical-philosophical question is does a religious leader have a right to publicly express a political point of view on social media and/or from the pulpit? The answer must be, on the first half of the proposition, that every citizen has the right to express their personal opinion on political issues as long as the nation state permits such free expression. That includes priests and preachers, rabbis and imams. My friend in Illinois has the right to write, “Each and every day this Administration reveals itself to be following in the footsteps of Fascism.” He has the right to name names, and he has done so. My Episcopal friend has the right to be entirely one-sided in support of Labour.
But there are consequences, and they expand if those partisan political opinions are characterized as religious guidance, and a line is crossed if that guidance becomes a demand for conformity on religious grounds. It is one thing to agree that a religious leader can march in a Gay Pride parade, but if he or she carries a banner with the name of the congregation there had better be solid assurance that “the congregation” has agreed. One of my heroes was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who marched on the front line in civil rights demonstrations with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he did that on his own, as a religious celebrity of sorts but not officially representing the denomination. It can be argued that everything a religious leader does reflects on the religion he or she leads, but unless that action is official by the religious organization the charge does not stick. Or it should not. History is full of incidents, just or not, in which religious leaders were punished for their personal stands on politically charged social matters.
I cannot imagine either of my two friends insisting that everyone within the sound of his voice or within reach of his chalice must be of one political opinion. I’m almost positive, however, that all the members of their congregations know without needing to be told from the pulpit how they would prefer for them to vote and why.
Every year at this time I ruminate on what makes Thanksgiving, the US holiday.
This year, 2019, I recall an essay I wrote for this website three years ago and wish to use it to reconsider what enables and underlies a successful Thanksgiving.
A few days ago a former student of mine who immigrated to the USA about ten years ago became a naturalized US citizen. She is very happy about it, and this Thanksgiving has special meaning for her, and her sense of being newly settled in Virginia. A close friend who graduated with her settled in Canada. They have Thanksgiving there, too: a harvest festival on the second Monday of October. She also feels settled. Their close friend, a Muslim woman feels settled just a few miles from the university here in Thailand where they all graduated on the same day. Even though she is Thai, and a fourth generation resident, being a Muslim in the middle of a community that is half and half Buddhist and Roman Catholic, she feels less settled than her neighbors.
Settler narratives make a difference.
I own my sense of being an Illinois farm boy. It is who I am no matter that I live on a Northern Thai farm about as many nautical miles from Illinois as can be. It is the feeling of being settled that counts when it comes to Thanksgiving. I could easily get back to that.
Essential to our clan’s settlement is the whole idea of settlement.
“Settler Colonialism” is the emerging term for the particular type of process engaged in by immigrants from Europe into North America in the 17-19th centuries. Settler colonialism included certain concepts: (1) that the settlers were entitled to move where they went. (Some were compelled, in fact). (2) That there was no need to take prior residents into account. (3) That this movement reiterated a sacred (Biblical) precedent and mandate. (4) That the legal practices the settlers developed were sovereign. (5) That ranching, farming and manufacturing were the standard enterprises (mining, shipping, commerce and forestry were aspects in support of them).
The US national narrative tends to boldly celebrate this. Significant episodes revolve around successful establishment of settlements and elimination of threats. Heroes are those who pushed colonization forward. Alternative narratives were nullified in various ways.
Ironically, for a migrant such as me, the least considered component of Thanksgiving is the concept of settlement. So I wonder what other narrative might be possible?
Narratives of belonging have no concept of interruption, resettlement, or ownership. Eternal things cannot be owned. Wellbeing is not dependent on possessing such things. Even more absurd is the idea of owning other living beings or of a hierarchy of human authority. Instead there is unquestionable but inscrutable connectivity. In such a cultural ethos, thanksgiving is a response to particular events (a successful hunt, for example) rather than to abstract feeling and cyclical tradition.
Narratives of immigration are concerned with transition. Change is the constant. The destination is ahead. Narratives of immigration are nostalgic as well as hopeful, rather than satisfied and defensive. They espouse mystery, celebrate passages, and expect thresholds. Thanksgiving is concerned with incidents of adaptation and accommodation. Narratives of immigration are recapitulated in sacramental ceremonies in which divine-human encounters in the past presage ones in the present and portend ones to come. Thanksgiving is anticipatory.
These are two alternative narratives. They are irreconcilable with a settler narrative.
In order to celebrate the Great American Thanksgiving it is not necessary to pay attention to any of these narratives. Consideration of the implications of settler colonialism could come at another time. Ironically, the pressure to do so on Thanksgiving comes from the imposition of a meta-narrative about patriotism, national heritage, and the myth of the first settlers. The story of the Pilgrims impels a response that our collective amnesia could otherwise avoid. The sober conclusion to critical review of settler colonization of North America is that the colonists cared nothing for their predecessors in the land and willfully drove them away as obstructions to settlement. We in any generation after these pioneer settlers are beneficiaries of their ruthlessness. The remnant of the original residents who survive, as well as recent immigrants, either do not share in the Thanksgiving or have capitulated to the principles of settler colonialism upon which the Thanksgiving Harvest Festival is founded and conducted.
It takes equal measures of tolerance and hopefulness for someone like our new Virginian from Thailand to buy into the Pilgrim story and to see turkeys and pumpkin pie as the food of choice on the fourth Thursday of November. An immigrant narrative, celebrating human diversity in America, would be far more satisfying and more accurate for at least a quarter of the US population. Her being settled has none of the coldblooded confidence that my ancestors brought to Illinois. As for me, belonging to Illinois anymore takes mental dexterity, too. Pramote and I will not even be able to access (or afford) a big turkey dinner this year. If we “eat out” it would be using Thanksgiving as the excuse rather than as a celebration of identity. For us the sense of authentic thanksgiving would be based on a narrative of belonging.
RUMINATION ON HOW UNIVERSITIES WILL SURVIVE
Four incidents conspired to focus my thinking on the desperate straits of higher education as we get to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. I heard of increasing closings of colleges and universities in the USA. The Bangkok Post published an op-ed piece on the massive failure of Thai universities to stay competitive in the region. This weekend is our university’s 42nd annual commencement. We have begun a new phase of recruiting international students (from within and from outside Thailand) for our university.
Without overwhelming this essay with statistics, I still feel the need to cite a few, in order to see where we are going.
· The number of degree granting institutions of higher education in the USA dropped from 4726 in 2012, to 4298 last year.
· The cost to be a full-time, in-state student at a public institution was $7605 per year, on average, or $11,990 for out-of-state students.
Business administration courses of study continue to be the most popular in most countries. So, let’s compare costs between US and Thai institutions.
· The annual tuition for bachelor’s degrees in business administration in the USA was $9970 at public institutions for in-state students and $25,620 for out-of state students. At private non-profit institutions the tuition averaged $34,740.
· At Payap University the published cost for the International Business Management program is $4475 (based on this month’s currency exchange rate) for international students and about $3,130 for Thai students.
· The cost at Chulalongkorn University for the BBA degree is $1133 per year for Thai students and $4,100 for international students.
· The cost at Assumption University for the same program is $4098.
· The cost for international BBA students is $1333 per year at Rajapat Chiang Mai University.
These are the best figures I could ascertain. They help in doing a comparison between costs for students from the USA. Many Thai universities are considering how they might recruit students from overseas with our attractive tuition and fees as well as lower cost of living. In order to do that the quality of instruction and educational activities must approximate stateside levels. Instructors’ English proficiency must be close to that of “native speakers.” The social and recreational options must be attractive. And free time options must at least not be a problem. These things cost more.
In the long run it is word of mouth that will attract students and sustain this recruitment source. For the short run it can be helpful and even necessary to establish agreements with partner institutions and organizations where Thai universities, like ours, provide educational services including full courses, semesters abroad, double degrees and other advantages. Our location in Chiang Mai, which is a cultural intersection, can be important.
But these plusses, as we like to think of them, can be obliterated by the challenges facing all Thai higher education, as well as higher education elsewhere. In the educational ethos of the near future, already breaking upon us, institutional survival and relevance will not depend on simply recruiting students from overseas to sit in our classrooms and laboratories learning in the time-honored tradition. People learn in different ways than they used to. Universities and colleges must be educational innovators. It will cost a lot for universities to get over the habit of waiting for the new students to flock to our gates.
A seminar conducted by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok a week ago highlighted the challenges.
· Digital technology enables people to learn anywhere and anytime.
· “Students will be able to study in multiple modes, switching seamlessly between on-campus, mixed or wholly online study, to suit their lifestyles and fit learning around work and other activities,” Piriya Pholphirul, director of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) Graduate School of Development Economics, said. Flexible learning will be available on-demand, 24 hours a day, and will be tailored to what students want to achieve, he said.
· Thai universities must improve their standing on the global stage or students will turn their backs on them.
· It is estimated that a person makes 3 major career changes during their working years. Life-long learning is becoming mandatory.
In the USA, right now, a generation is entering the workforce who will have to spend their whole lives in it. My generation, now mostly retired and rapidly becoming deceased, was able to accumulate resources to depart from the workforce at an age (around 65) when we could count on several years of activities unrelated to economic security. That is being wiped out for future generations. The education that used to suffice for a lifetime of gainful employment is obsolete. No profession, even now, allows professionals to function for 40 years without re-training. Changing professions is even rougher. Education and work will be linked inseparably and educational institutions may or may not fill the new need. Educational costs for those who need to keep up will be on-going.
As it happens, the educational establishment is its own enemy. The main obstacle to doing what Piriya predicted is the government’s control system. Every time some innovation is introduced, such as semesters abroad were a few years ago, the objection that made most of the efforts impossible was that such things were against regulations and would undermine the university’s quality and therefore the university’s accreditation. Distance learning is facing the same hurdles. It doesn’t matter that this student generation doesn’t learn in the old way anymore, the system makes change almost impossible. It’s not that we do not know how to teach better, it’s that we are not allowed to do it.
I am beginning to think that only open rebellion against the system and its guardians is what it will take. The cost to those who dare to rebel could be substantial.
On Saturday evening, November 16, the 42nd graduating class of Payap University is receiving diplomas with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining. These graduates are among the last to be marching proudly to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing medieval academic garb, expecting that they are becoming secure by degrees. The world is changing too fast for long-term security. Some of these graduates will be the innovators and technicians who find out how to do education differently and some will try to leave the world of academia with a firm farewell.
If our university has done a good job up to commencement time for these students, and if we are able to manage the challenges of transforming Payap University into an educational institution for a technology-assisted future, the university will be here when they need us.
UNDERSTANDING LOY KRATHONG
Loy Kratong comes on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, according to one of the Thai reckonings (or the second month, “Yi”, of the year according to the Lanna [northern Thai] calendar). It is the larger of two “secular” festivals in the Thai calendar and the most extensive annual celebration here in Chiang Mai. This year Loy Kratong is November 11 with the major city events on November 12.
The way Loy Kratong is celebrated varies from village to village, and in large cities from neighborhood to neighborhood. What they all have in common is making an offering of flowers and candles (called kratongs) on a waterway. The offerings are set on the water to float (i.e. to loy). Many homes will decorate their front walls with candles or prateep (candles in clay cups), hang paper lanterns, or erect festival gates made of banana leaves and stalks with palm leaves. Electric lights are becoming popular recently. Almost every village will build a stairway and pier to give access to the water where families come to launch their offering. Villages may hold contests of various sorts, especially contests for home-made kratongs. Fire crackers and fiery “flower pots” as well as “Roman candles” will be common wherever people can get away with it; police crack-downs have been effective where large crowds gather, after years of horrifying accidents. A big central event might include a boat race, parade of large commercial kratongs, beauty contest, or fireworks display.
In Chiang Mai Loy Kratong and Yi Peng overlap. Loy Kratong, as it is celebrated now, moved from the Central Thai region several decades ago. The celebration in the city goes on for three nights, with a big parade at the climax ending with fireworks on the river. Yi Peng is an older merit-making observance centered on village temples from which large paper hot air balloons (called khom loy) are sent aloft. The balloons are sent up during the day at the end of a chanting service, and are made of brightly colored paper, with a long tail. A delayed fuse sets off fire crackers when the balloon is overhead, and candy or coins wrapped in colorful ribbons are released to be chased by children. Khom loy are also launched at night in massive numbers these days. They make a stunning sight as they rise and then are caught by winds. The heat to fill the balloons is provided by a wax coil of string which burns up after 15 minutes or so, allowing the paper balloon to cool and fall. Airlines have to cancel, delay or divert flights to avoid the swarms of khom loy.
Some form of Loy Kratong festival is a tradition all over mainland South East Asia. However, the idea of floating a handmade offering is said to have originated with a woman named Nopphamat in the King’s court in Sukhothai. This story is how the festival is made particularly Thai. No trace of this legend can be found, however, before the beginning of the 19th century when a story of Nang Nopphamat appeared. HM King Rama IV accredited Loy Kratong to a Brahmanical festival honoring the Lord Buddha where a story says a bird with a candle in its beak flew down to worship the Buddha.
No matter the origin, there is complete agreement that one of the features of the festival is to venerate and appease … whom? The Mother of Waters would be one candidate, water being the very source of life itself. Rivers in Thai languages are called mae naam – Mother of Waters. So the floating offerings are composed of symbolic items: flowers, candle(s), incense, and perhaps a coin or a bit of something sweet or savory. The art of Thai traditional flower folding is employed in making these dinner-plate-size floats. Inherent in the respect given to the source of life is confession and apology for using and misusing waterways and water (and by extension all life-resources). It is said that some old-timers include a few fingernail clippings and sprigs of hair to symbolize the floating away of sins and the intention to lead a better life. It’s apparently going to take more time for the King’s application of Loy Kratong to the Lord Buddha to take hold. In any case, Loy Kratong is not so firmly religious that Christians feel obliged to shun it.
Another way to look at Loy Kratong is as an environmental festival. It is one of the few remaining celebrations where families bring children to appreciate their dependence on nature.
Fire and water are the most prominent elements in Loy Kratong. As traditional elements they are opposed to each other, and supplementary to each other. In one way Loy Kratong is the obverse of Songkran, where Loy Kratong comes when the rivers are high at the end of the rainy season and Songkran comes when the rivers are drying up. The one gives thanks for life-giving water and the other begs for it. Rainfall on the hills provides water for irrigation (rain is not counted on to make rice grow, but flowing water is). The hills are covered with trees where nature thrives and can be found to sustain life. The rain comes from the sky, into which the lanterns are sent in joyful reverence. Prayers go up with the khom-loy balloons, as well as downstream with the kratongs. Mother Nature, formerly called Gaia by the Greeks and Mae Toranee in this part of the world, is the source of life, the embodiment of earth and water, along with fire and air. People may not remember a particular name for the source of life, but the four elements of nature are evident when the kratongs float away from the pier and catch the current and when the khom-loy rise in the air and catch the breeze.
Loy Kratong is about sufficiency, sustainability, and sustenance. It is about life. It is a joyful and humble thanksgiving.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.