Pramote has had fish of various sizes for all the years we have been living in a house of our own. Of all the living creatures under our purview (cats, birds, lizards, dogs, snakes, rats, game fish, and smaller things with at least 6 legs) only the gold fish were chosen. The rest chose us. And only the gold fish required constant care and elaborate facilities.
Here in Ban Den Village, right after we finished building our house we built an in-ground fish tank for gold fish the size of our hand, not small but not large. They were a joy until the first disaster. One day, unbeknownst to us, the village chlorinated the water and when we used it with the fish they died horrible deaths. They were replaced and the fun lasted until an earthquake cracked the tank and we had to rush to save them. The tank was relined but that did not work, so a new one was dug in the ground. It leaked badly and had to be replaced by a larger one above ground. The new tank was the most elaborate of all with three filtration tanks and a complicated set of valves and pumps. This seemed to be a great situation until the electricity went off and we had to work for hours to keep the fish alive because there was no power for the aerator pump. The second time power failed we did not know in time to keep half a dozen from dying. The third time was in the middle of the night just recently when 10 died, and the tank began to lose water again. Pramote declared he has had enough and proposed to get rid of the fish.
There is no shortage of takers. At the most we had 45 fish of a wide variety of colors varying in size from a foot to about 3 feet long, which is longer and heavier than any fish we have seen in other tanks or ponds. Yesterday began the final disposal of the fish. Our nephew’s friends came to take as many as they could persuade us to relinquish. We have a few of the biggest ones left, waiting for a relative to come today. Then the fish tank will be turned into something else. I am guessing it will be for plants in pots.
It is hard to know how to react to this end of an era, as it were. We have almost never been without fish. They have been part of our life, and a measure of our well-being. This aspect of our identity crept up on me. I was not prepared to be known by the fish we keep. They are a sign of our prosperity, because there could not be fish like this without expendable cash to run the motors, buy the food, build the tanks, and much more. When people saw our fish they revised their estimations of us. The fish are a matter of pride because of their size and color. Connoisseurs (of which I am not one) know how to evaluate colors of fish like this. I believe the more colors and the brighter they are, the better. Anyhow, we have had up to $2000 or $3000 worth of fish I understand, and we are giving them away to good homes, we hope.
Which brings me to a more delicate matter.
These fish are Pramote’s pets as well as objects of pride. He has given several of them artificial respiration – yes, I’m not kidding about this – you’d have to have seen it to believe it. He rescued some of them as spawn and raised them from minnow size into size big enough to join the rest without becoming their snack. He medicated them when a mystery disease threatened. He knows which ones are off-springs of which. We have a more personal relationship with our cats, but the fish have been significant. They have signified things I am not yet aware of, I suspect. That may become clear as the last ones leave and the valve is turned to drain the tank into the orchard.
It amazes me how things become part of our meaning.
TEMPLE SECRETS, ESSAY 4
Phra Kru Wimon Boonkosol of Wat Nimmolwiwat in Roi Et was featured in an article in the Bangkok Post two months ago with a rather remarkable claim about the mythological dragons represented in nearly every Buddhist temple in Thailand.
"The naga is a mythical creature in Buddhist mythology. The animal is a half-serpent, half-human deity. When he is in human form on a path to salvation after redeeming himself from his bad karma, he still yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds," the abbot explained.
My interest in the venerable abbot’s assertion goes far beyond the literal matter of whether an animal, mythological or biological, can be invested with speculative, philosophical concerns. I am interested in how the Thai Buddhist scholar can come to such a conclusion. How, in fact, can Christian scholars come to conclusions about dragons, or saints, or God? What rules are there? This very issue is at the heart of the most profound theological battle of Christianity in 21st century America. But I will limit my analysis to Phra Kru Wimon’s statement, “The naga … is a half-serpent, half-human deity. …he yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds.”
It is the abbot’s belief that the naga is or ought to be a role model for Buddhists in that regard. The abbot is designing his temple to feature the naga as an aspirant for human beings to emulate.
The first matter is how the naga appears in Buddhist mythology. Foremost among the naga’s appearances in the central narratives of the Lord Buddha is the story of a naga protecting the Buddha as he was in his trance acquiring the dhamma. The naga, named Mucalinda, raised the Buddha above a flood that had been provided to delay the demonic forces sent to prevent the Buddha being enlightened. The Buddha seated on the coils of a naga and being sheltered from the deluge is a major symbol in Thai Buddhist art.
Would that we all had such an opportunity to provide heroic service for the Self-Enlightened One! Phra Kru Wimon wants us to know that we do have countless such opportunities, although they may not be so dramatic. We are at the frontier, as was the naga, between the serene Holy One and the attacking forces of chaos and enslavement to Evil.
The naga, however, has other roles in Buddhist mythology. Our own first encounter with a naga might come as we approach a Buddhist temple where a pair of nagas guards the entryway and the stairs into the main assembly hall where a re-enactment of the Buddha teaching his disciples often takes place. We would do well to suspect that the naga is not unambiguously a docile creature. Those whose intentions are pernicious are duly warned. Overhead, along the eaves of the buildings, are other nagas swimming in cosmic space between heaven and earth.
If the naga is a mythical creature, the realm of discourse about it is mythological. The line of such discourse can be traced with methods used to study mythology, including narratives, linguistic analysis, sculpture and architecture, and applications in other realms of discourse such as philosophy or religion.
Here is a basic fact: a mythic entity is never entirely contemporary. A narrative cannot be a myth if it has no mythic roots. Myths have an independent existence. No matter how a myth has been adapted and manipulated, it is from an earlier time all the way back into the mists of pre-history. The validity and relevance of a myth is that the message it conveys is derived and not simply concocted. So, it is important that the naga as it appears in Buddhist mythology has connections to earlier mythology before the time of the Lord Buddha. The naga of Thai Buddhism is related to Sheshanaag of Hindu mythology, upon whom Vishnu reclined afloat on the cosmic sea of milk before the earth was formed. There is a mythic trail that traces that lineage. It can be confirmed through study of symbolic representations from archeology and Buddhist temple art. What can be concluded from this is that the abbot has not misrepresented facts to say that the naga is a mythical creature. Nor has he tried to obscure the fact (as many religious pundits do about sacred beings) that the naga is mythological. Its relevance depends on it being representational and metaphorical. Oh, what a mess religions get themselves into when they are careless with their symbols.
However, the abbot of Wat Nimmolwiwat has gone further than to say, “Nagas are doers of good deeds. The naga that protected the Lord Buddha was doing what its ancestor did in supporting Vishnu, and as the dragon was doing in transporting the Chinese-Buddhist avatar of the Buddha, Mae Kwan Im.” Phra Kru Wimon also takes pains to connect the naga to the philosophical core of popular Buddhism.
I believe the reasoning is something like this: the naga was stuck in animal form as a result of its demeritorious behavior in past existences; but through one supreme act in safeguarding the Lord Buddha the naga was delivered from that karmic punishment. Thus it could proceed on its path to release from the endless round of birth, suffering, and death. Release comes through realizing the real nature of existence is not permanence but constant change. This realization is enlightenment. It breaks the cycle.
There is mythological support for this. The cosmic serpent is famously represented holding its tail in its mouth. The Greeks called the serpent Ouroboros. This is what it came to mean to Gnostics at the time Buddhism was gaining traction in India:
From a Gnostic viewpoint, the opposing ends of the ouroboros were interpreted as the divine and earthly in man, which, despite being at odds with one another, existed in unison nonetheless. In this sense, it is comparable to the Chinese yin and yang, depicting the harmony of contrary forces, as well as the cosmic dichotomy of light and darkness in Manichaeism and the Zoroastrian philosophy of the farvahar, which first posited that each soul was composed of a pure, divine component, as well as a human one. …the ouroboros went on to enjoy much popularity among Renaissance alchemists. Again representing the infinite nature of time and the eternal, it was seen in the eyes of the alchemists as the ultimate obstacle to be overcome in the Magnum Opus, their incessant struggle; for to become immortal – their chief aim – meant to break the incessant cycle of the ouroboros once and for all.
It is striking to me that in Thai Buddhist temple art the naga is emerging from the mouth of another serpent. But that is the end of it. The naga is no longer grasping anything. Its avarice is ended. It has broken the incessant cycle.
The abbot’s campaign is to enhance the relevance of the naga as a mythic symbol for the cosmic context of human existence into a symbol for a specific item of philosophical dogma, namely, that after balancing karma one must study Dharma ( i.e. dhamma in Thai, the Truth that the Lord Buddha discovered which leads to enlightenment and release). This must be accomplished through study.
To accommodate this concept the abbot declares that the naga is “half serpent, half-human deity.” This may be more than previous mythology will support. The most famous text about the naga yearning to become a monk actually describes how it was prevented by the Lord Buddha, himself. The naga had transformed himself into human form.
“Shortly after, when asleep in his hut, the naga returned to the shape of a huge snake. The monk who shared the hut was somewhat alarmed when he woke up to see a great snake sleeping next to him! The Lord Buddha summoned the naga and told him he may not remain as a monk, at which the utterly disconsolate snake began to weep. The snake was given the Five Precepts as the means to attaining a human existence in his next life when he can then be a monk. Then out of compassion for the sad snake, the Lord Buddha said that from then on all candidates for the monkhood be called 'Naga' as a consolation. They are still called 'Naga' to this day."
Indeed, there are examples of Thai Buddhist temple art in which the “human deity” is part naga or emerging from the mouth of a naga. But they are all modern. According to widespread narratives about karma, an animal would have to be reborn as a human with enough karmic accumulation to be able to attain enlightenment. Human beings must work at it. One of the pathways is study which is a cognitive undertaking. Divine beings can achieve the benefits of enlightenment instantly through direct contact with a Buddha. In the Thai Buddhist narrative the Lord Buddha spent part of his final compassionate delay from Nirvana by visiting divinities in their heavenly abode. It would seem, then, that the naga was not entirely divine or human. Mucalinda was not transubstantiated into Nirvana by his meeting the Lord Buddha in person, nor was he human enough to study dhamma and be enlightened without being reincarnated as a human and ordained as a monk. Nor would his being “half animal and half human-divine” be an example for us to emulate. It is tricky to use a mythological example for a religious purpose.
Perhaps it is best just to agree with the abbot that the naga is an appropriate symbol for the two most important undertakings of a Thai Buddhist: study of dhamma and doing good deeds. The abbot’s declaration that the naga is “half animal, half-human divine” is a homiletical device. It appears his intention is to reinforce the interpretation of the ever-present naga in Thai Buddhist symbolism as a metaphor for Buddhist endeavor. But the abbot’s sermons would be weakened if his mythology had been flawed.
I probably should leave this discussion at this point, but I want to add a note to be developed some other time. I have tried to sketch how the use of a mythic symbol (an archetype in the terms of Carl Jung) has roots that can be traced. This lineage substantiates the legitimacy and intrinsic meaning of the symbol. By the same token, a symbol can be identified as mythic by tracing its heritage. That is the bind in which contemporary popular Christian theology finds itself. Christian thinking has detached itself from its mythic heritage. Simplistic Christians have decided that biblical narratives, for example, cannot be mythic. They must not be myths. That would ruin things. But the obvious fact is that a great deal of Christian symbolism is profound precisely because it is mythic with roots deep in human experience, maybe even in our DNA. No religion can be sustained after it has been thoroughly demythologized. This is the failure of post-Enlightenment liberalism. Nor can a religion be profound that treats its myths derisively. That is the flaw of alt-right conservatism.
Previous essays in this TEMPLE SECRETS series include:
I attended an event here in Chiang Mai last week that brought together many acquaintances from years past. One Thai fellow about my age from Los Angeles wanted to know how things were going with me. In the course of our conversation it became clear he hadn’t heard about my “changes of orientation, and my Thai spouse” so I filled him in. He never missed a beat, flicked an eyebrow, or registered the least surprise. It isn’t always thus.
One of the unfair things about being LGBT is that we’re never completely finished “coming out” of the closet. There’s always somebody else who doesn’t know, and we have learned we can never be sure how they will react.
I was reminded of one of my bigger surprises in this regard.
Ricky was HIV+ at age 12. He was infected by tainted blood he received as a hemophiliac. I was asked by two of our church members to let them hold a fund-raising event in our church for Ricky.
That’s how it started.
Ricky’s church was a large, fundamentalist, blue-collar congregation in the refinery and steel-mill district. They dis-invited Ricky and his family when members protested. 4 or 5 of us clergy formed an ad-hoc advocacy group to try to get better information about HIV-AIDS to churches in the area. We were signed on as an aspect of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to provide religious resources and help when called on. Joyce was the social worker who took care of us. We became a headline program in her annual reports.
Over the next 2 or 3 years we met, conducted worship services for people living with HIV-AIDS, visited patients in hospitals if the patients were open to a visit, and sometimes conducted their funerals. Joyce was tireless.
When the program closed and Joyce lost her job. She was first out of work, then homeless with a young daughter. For weeks Joyce came to me to get help of various kinds. She and I considered it an accomplishment that we managed to keep her off the street, homeless as she was. And then she met Matt. Matt was a dentist and a religious skeptic. After almost a year, Matt and Joyce decided to get married. They asked me to officiate. It was a very small wedding. We laughed about how nice it was that Joyce and her daughter weren’t threatened with living on the street anymore. She fervently declared that I had saved her life more than once. That confirmed she had been suicidal, as I had intuited.
Shortly after that I left the area but Joyce sent notes about her new life and the fact that she and Matt were taking instruction to join the Greek Orthodox Church.
Over the next 6 years my life underwent radical change. I admitted I was bi-sexual on the gay end of the spectrum, changed jobs to avoid battles with the church it would have been too early to win, and made other major adjustments.
One day I happened to be back in the area having a large cookie in a shopping mall when Joyce came through. She greeted me like a beloved uncle and when she asked about my life I told her the headlines. I was still nervous about coming out to most people but I didn’t hesitate because Joyce and I had been through a lot.
It was probably three months later that I heard from her. I’d come back to Thailand and she sent a Christmas card with a letter in it.
“I am shocked,” she said. “I had no idea you were succumbing to this. Matt and I have talked to our priest about whether our marriage is valid since it was conducted by a fraudulent minister who could not be anointed by the Holy Spirit. Of course, Matt and I want no further contact with you.”
Morgan Jerkins of New Jersey wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Why Do You Say You’re Black?” in the New York Times, Sunday, January 28, 2018 in which she argues against “we’re all just human beings after all.”
“If a white person asks a black woman why she cannot just be a human, he or she is asking, Why can’t you be like me? Why can’t you participate in the fiction that there is such a thing as being “human,” and that race and gender combined negate the former label? The problem with this seemingly harmless question is that such an interrogation demonstrates how white people can understand or digest people of color only through their own criteria.”
Her experience is that being Black is real, as being a woman is real, and she is indisputably and indissolubly both – it’s who she is. She has extracted from that experience that there is no such thing as being a human being without those contributing identity factors. The assertion that race and gender combined, negate the label “human” is a fiction, she argues. This is a problem that white people have because they are showing how they understand people of color through their own criteria [and not, therefore, through the criteria of the people they are talking about].
Let us assume that there is such a thing as a person of a pure black race. Such a person might be Nigerian and trace ancestry back through countless generations. And there is a white person whose skin and ancestry are Anglo-white all the way back to the Ice Age. If they meet and produce a child, is that child black or white? Who decides? Can the child decide? Do people in the child’s social context have the deciding voice? Let’s consider some examples.
Tiger Woods is an African American whose father was a Black US citizen and whose mother was born and raised in Thailand. Tiger is a Black American because he says so. He is saying, “I am American because my father was an American, and so I am Black because he was.” He could say he is an Asian-American or that he is Thai-American, but he identifies with his father. He does not need to repeatedly reaffirm his racial background because he conforms to the concept that Black Americans are racially mixed at some point(s) in their heritage. His sex and gender are also not in question. His Thai racial background is largely discounted.
Tammy Duckworth is Thai American whose father is a white US citizen and whose mother is Thai. Legal citizenship aside, she is Thai American because she says so. She identifies with her father (who was a soldier as was she) as well as with her mother. I have not heard that she has to debate her sex and gender even though she is a female combat veteran. She has to continually defend her American identity because she has entered arenas that are reserved for “real Americans” by becoming a successful politician and member of the elite US Senate. Furthermore, she is a vocal opponent of the current Trump-Republican “Make America Great” camp. Her Thai racial background is never ignored.
Barack Obama, as we all know, is African American whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American woman from Kansas. Barack was born in Hawaii. He is African American because he says so. He has had virtually nothing to do with his father since childhood, but he has lived and thrived in the African-American subculture in Chicago, and as an African-American outside that culture (in Harvard University, for example). His Black racial ancestry is never questioned, but his white racial ancestry is largely discounted. His conformity to a cisgender role as male is uncontroversial and even noteworthy.
Morgan Jenkins’ argument is that it is wrong for white people to ignore important identity factors even when they do so attempting to be inclusive and accepting. Reality is that race and gender contribute to who one is.
I respectfully suggest that there is a third factor that cannot be separated from race and gender in considering one’s identity. That factor is ethnicity. Tiger, Tammy and Barack as well as Morgan are as impacted by ethnicity as they are by race and gender. In fact, whatever it means to be Black, or male, or American is a matter of agreement with a cultural consensus. It is, in effect, only within an ethnic-cultural context that one can know what one’s race and gender are. Outside that context they might not be what they are within that particular socio-cultural environment.
If Tiger or Tammy had been born, raised, and stayed in Thailand not one iota of their gender or racial composition would be necessarily different but their identity would be different. There are a large number of Thai boys and girls who have Black American or White American parents. But if they are born and raised in Thailand, and if they conform and identify with Thai culture, they will be Thai. However, in Thailand as a Thai person, if Tiger had found his sexuality not in conformity with the sexuality he was assigned at birth he could be a kathoey, which is not possible in America (at least not in a way remotely comparable to the “third gender” in Thailand). The idea that there are 2 or 3 genders is a cultural agreement. Some cultures have identified 5 genders.
The idea that there is such a thing as a Black race is also a cultural decision. What Morgan meant by Black is a combination of race and ethnicity. A native of Papua New Guinea is as black as a native of Nigeria but neither of them has as much in common with the Jenkins clan in New Jersey USA as the Jerkinses would surely have with the Irish-American O’Brien clan in New Jersey. It would be as much a violation of reality to overlook the ethnic component of one’s identity in behalf of “all of us being human beings”, as it would be to ignore one’s racial element. Similarly, in the USA just what constitutes a member of the Black race is a cultural matter. One does not have to have 100% black ancestors to be Black. Hardly any African-Americans do have.
Is Chinese a race? I have heard people of Chinese ancestry argue heatedly that it is. A Chinese matron, born and raised in Bangkok Thailand, told me confidently that any non-Chinese ancestor compromises all descendants. One is either all Chinese or not really Chinese. That is how one can be Chinese with very scant ability to speak Chinese and important connections to Thailand’s hierarchy going back several generations. Being Chinese in Thailand is an ethnic subset but a racial reality. Nevertheless, even though conservative Chinese in Thailand insist on their racial stock being definitive, there are many who have passed into Thai identities. Choice is a factor.
Choice, of course, is not the only factor. Tiger Woods could not just choose to be Chinese or Nigerian. He has racial and ethnic characteristics that would make that complicated. Society would have a say. But society can be arbitrary and unjust. Those who advocate doing away with racial identities are largely reacting against that sort of tyranny. They might mean well, Morgan Jerkins implies, but they are not looking at MY world through MY eyes, nor are they looking at me as I know myself. Idealism that is out of touch with reality is on the way to tyranny.
Note: Photo of Morgan Jenkins from http://www.morgan-jerkins.com
Betsy Guyer was remarkable. That’s how I remember her. She filled in where others could not, and filled those niches with spectacular radiance. Betsy Guyer and her husband Dr. John Guyer were Presbyterian Church (USA) missionaries in Chiang Mai as the Church of Christ in Thailand re-established and expanded educational and medical work in Thailand after World War II.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai as a young missionary recruit in 1965 Betsy was one of the missionaries who nudged me into the places I was needed. I describe it this way: in addition to my two main assignments, teaching English in the Thailand Theological Seminary and learning spoken Thai at the Chiang Mai branch of the Union Language School, I became a classroom teacher of high school students at The Prince Royal’s College (PRC), a Cub Scout leader, a presenter at the Chiangmai Co-educational Center (CCC, now called Chiang Mai International School), a teacher of reading English at the McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery, and a co-pastor (with John Butt) of the Chiang Mai Community Church. Betsy Guyer was behind each of those opportunities in one way or another. That is just part of the range of her endeavors. She was influential in countless ways.
Betsy’s main role, as I remember from those days, was as a teacher of physical sciences at PRC including providing laboratories with supplies and equipment so students would actually become enthusiastic about science from hands-on experience. She also undertook formation of a marching band. I think it was the first marching band in Chiang Mai. To do this she not only had to recruit and train band members, she had to round up all the musical instruments mostly from overseas – and then help replace them after a fire wiped out the entire collection. This accomplishment came into perspective for me when I attended a graduation recital for two students of a program to train music teachers and one of the graduates struggled through a one-finger version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. Meanwhile, Betsy’s PRC students were performing music by John Philip Sousa because she had taught them how to play every instrument and how to read music.
While she was at this, Betsy served as chair of the CCC committee, recruiting teachers, expanding facilities built for other purposes, and guiding the direction of CCC with the international community just beginning to expand and the Thai government just beginning to suppress international schools, before reversing that policy a decade later.
Betsy was one who took on the really tough roles. Those roles were hardly ever “out front”. It was never clearer to me than her teaching of nurses. Imagine, if you will, the course that would be hardest to fill. That’s the one Betsy taught, human anatomy, with real cadavers (respectfully called “Ajan Yai”—“Head Teacher”). The whole concept was so loaded with superstition and terror that the idea there was such a course and where it was taught was treated as a secret. It boggles the mind to think of the obstacles she had to overcome in those days to obtain a cadaver every year, to get it prepared for dissection by students, to get the students beyond their fear and revulsion into a learning mode, and then to deal with “Ajan Yai’s” remains, step by step.
All the while, Betsy was a steadfast member of two church congregations. She and the family attended First Thai Church of Chiang Mai on Sunday mornings and Chiang Mai Community Church in the evening before going to supper at Sutinan’s restaurant beside the railway station. She hardly ever missed the missionary fellowship’s weekly Bible studies; refreshments (I remember hot muffins) were great when it was her turn to be host. Both she and John were elected elders of First Church and Community Church.
I believe we all thought of Betsy as a strong and effective leader and matron, but I think that she thought of herself as a colleague who simply took her turn and filled needs. She was the kind of person who glistened – she seemed to reflect light collected from beyond in such stunning ways that anyone who didn’t try hard to focus on her might have missed her presence and never realized how dull things would have been without her crystalline core behind the radiance.
We have received word that Betsy Guyer died on January 22, 2018 after long decline due to geriatric illnesses. She was preceded in death less than a month ago by her husband, Dr. John Guyer. Again we express our prayers and share sorrow with Janet Guyer and her brother Jim Guyer and his family.
See my tribute to John by clicking on this link: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/john-guyer. Thanks to Janet and William J Yoder for locating the pictures of Betsy and John, and Betsy with her early band.
I’ll call him John, “The Gerasene Demoniac”. Nobody should be stuck with a label made up of a clinical description or a popular pejorative. True, what we know about John is that he hailed from Gerasa in a precinct of 10 Syrian-Greek cities and was said to be infested with thousands of demons.
Succinctly, when Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee during a major storm, they came ashore at a cemetery in which John resided among the tombs, behaving violently due to demonic spirits. Jesus was confronted by John, and the demons inside him reacted defensively. Jesus ordered the demons to depart, but they pleaded not to be sent back to hell, so Jesus allowed them to swarm into a herd of swine. The swine stampeded over a cliff into the sea, much to the despair of the swine herders. They rushed into town to report their loss. The town’s leaders were frightened when John appeared, rational and fully clothed. They were terrified by how much power Jesus had to cure such a maniac and they implored Jesus to leave. John wanted to go, too, but Jesus told him to stay home where he could resume his restored life and tell people his story “of what the Lord had done for you.” Instead, John visited every town in the region with his story. The region became one of the first Christian strongholds and refuges.
How should we interpret this story? Is it a miracle story, a metaphor, a history anecdote, or a description of ministry?
First, we should try our best to see what it meant to the author and readers. The first readers were first and second generation Christians in the city of Antioch. Mark was interested in having those people know that Jesus’ ministry sometimes crossed borders in order to include Gentiles like them. In the case of John, it is hard to find any reason for Jesus to have gone across the lake except for John. (Matthew implies that Jesus was escaping the mob that was following him, but a sizeable portion of the crowd came from the area to which Jesus went that night.) While he was there Jesus didn’t undertake anything else but to restore the poor fellow. Then Jesus charged him to stay among his own people and tell about what “the Lord had done” for him to show him mercy. The people in John’s 10-city region were ethnic Syrian-Greek people, as were those in Antioch. By the time the Gospel of Mark was compiled Paul had been converted and sent out as a missionary from Antioch. Greek-culture converts were beginning to form Christian assemblies (church congregations) and the first cultural crisis in church history was firing up. It was all about whether the culture of the Christian followers of Jesus was to be Jewish or indigenous. That was settled before long when the Jews pretty much all over the Roman Empire disinherited the Christians and the Christians tried to make it clear they were no part of the revolutionaries whom the Romans were trying to subdue in Jerusalem and Israel with the sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the final battle in 125. Mark was telling his Antioch Christian kinfolks “Jesus began this when he crossed the stormy lake to get to John.”
Mark’s story of John was also a metaphor. John was deeply troubled, enslaved by a legion of demons, which Jewish folklore said was enough to kill any man. Such a man was beyond saving. John was surviving among the dead, waiting his turn. He was outcast, and in every identifiable way no longer a functional human being. But when Jesus commanded John’s captors to be gone from him, they went. Not without an argument, but they departed into a herd of swine, which became demented in place of fierce John. From an orthodox Jewish point of view John’s whole people and culture were outside the borders of salvation or concern. John was just the most extreme example. Yet, it was John, the impossible case, whom Jesus fully restored to humanity and gave a job to take up the rest of his life. Mark recalls that John told the story of his encounter with Jesus all over the territory. The story and the fact it was told first-hand were remembered far and wide for decades. The story of Jesus saving John was the first story of Jesus ever told in the 10 cities by one of their own people. “That’s how it works,” Mark was saying. “Nobody is so far gone they cannot be saved and then work to bring news about Jesus to their people.”
After we have identified the point of the story for the first audience we can ask what the story has meant throughout the ages. It was during the Middle Ages that the story inspired the imaginations of the mystics. They sought hidden meanings from the fact that there were 10 cities, that there were swine to be forfeited in place of John, that John was denied the right to join Jesus and his disciples on their way to the turning point of human history, and that the confrontation with Jesus restored him to society where he could wear clothes and converse like a normal human being. Jesus’ performance became a model for generations of exorcists and a golden text for dealing with witchcraft.
However, the validity of the interpretation of this or any story from Holy Scripture is what it says to readers in their context. The issue for us is how the story addresses the central event of our times. Not every story in the Holy Bible may do this, but the story of John does.
The central issue of our age is cultural entitlement. We are confronted on all sides with cultural battles. In the USA the lines tend to be mainly racial. In the Middle East they are sectarian. In Thailand they are ethnic.
John’s story is about how Jesus went about setting in motion cultural transformation. What Jesus did is address the critical issue of a community’s most desperate member. That person then became the agent to accomplish the next step. Time after time this is how Jesus worked. Often the critical need that got things started was for health and healing. Words came afterward. Twenty years later, when Paul was commissioned to take the story to new ethnic-Greek communities farther north, the 10 cities had thriving Christian groups. Those cities became places of sanctuary for refugees from the Roman wars in Palestine.
What was clear to Christians in Antioch from the writings of Mark as recounted by Luke and Matthew is sadly obscure to most Christian strategists now.
Just this week Pramote and I saw a group of Caucasians walking down the main road through our sub-district. They looked like tourists on foot, but they were handing out pieces of paper. Pramote concluded that they were “looking for merit”, which I would call “house to house evangelism.” Compared to Jesus’ way of doing things, these foreigners were wasting time. They had put words before everything, the cart before the horse. They were in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing to be effective. A short distance away, on a back lane was the man they should have been looking for. He is an addict, arrested several times, a major disturber of village well-being. He is so destructive and violent that even his mother has abandoned him and moved away to safety. He is the main reason the village is now listed as the #1 village for illegal drugs in the sub-district. Everyone is waiting for the police to raid his house and arrest him again. This time, surely, he will have some “tragic accident” in police custody and everyone will be relieved.
There on that back street is this village’s demented John. If those Christians could cure him of the demons that torment him it would plant seeds that would prosper. And the goal would be cultural transformation as that restored man’s story spreads. The goal of personal evangelism is accumulation of believers with addicts being among the least attractive. The goal of cultural transformation is peace and abundant life for a whole people. But cultural transformation takes decades and generations, and it is easily lost if the transformed culture succumbs to the lure of empire and becomes a tool for domination.
This is the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday is a US national holiday this week on January 15 the anniversary of his birth. I have vivid personal memories of Dr. King and what he marched for, and how I followed. His Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March 1965 was a major event for me.
When the US government ordered National Guard and US Army troops to safeguard the Freedom march after a bloody failed attempt ended when Alabama police rioted, Dr. King invited everyone to join in the last leg of the march from the Montgomery city limits to the steps of the state capitol building. Alabama Governor George Wallace has vowed to block the march and we were not sure what he would do that day. As I remember, four of us from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago announced our intention to travel to Montgomery for the march and got good wishes and some traveling money. We rode the train all night and arrived in plenty of time on March 25. There were an estimated 25,000 of us flooding the streets leading to the capitol building. Dr. King’s address was carried over loud speakers, even to us 3 blocks away. His most memorable quote was, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” The march ended peacefully. After he spoke, we were among the first to leave for Union Station. Although the stewards and porters had been very attentive to us and expected us on the return trip, the GM&O would be leaving on schedule. We got back to Chicago in time for Friday classes.
I have often wondered, “What difference it made?” We swelled the crowd by a miniscule amount, as we had done on June 21, 1964 when we were 5 or 6 of 65,000 who walked behind Dr. King through the Chicago Loop to Soldier’s Field to hold the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights.
My closest experience in his presence was when he came to Athens Ohio to speak to the Triennial assembly of the World Student Christian Federation. I was in the choir on stage with him and had a chance to shake his hand. It is remembered that his speech congealed the Student Christian Movement and Christian students to join the US civil rights campaign and provided impetus for lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as other non-violent acts of defiance.
Back in my home town of Jacksonville, Illinois my senior year at Illinois College in 1961 was unlike other years in several ways, following the Athens Triennial conference. I was a chairman of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, and, along with countless other new civil rights activists, we decided to join the MacMurray College Wesley Fellowship in bringing civil rights to our town starting with Spatz’s ice cream parlor on East State Street. We were informed that students of color had to order their milk shakes and banana splits at an outside window along an alleyway. The district attorney had advised us that he would prosecute to end this racial injustice if we could gather state’s evidence. We formed two small student groups, one all white, and the other integrated, and entered the store a few minutes apart. The white group was served, but milkshakes for the integrated group never came. After a while the owner demanded that the second group leave since he had a sign posted that announced he “had the right to seat and serve” whomever he chose. We got his order to leave and the reason for it on cassette tape. The issue was in the newspaper and on radio. We heard that rather than have a repeat of the action, the movie theaters and other restaurants in town quietly ended their racist practices. My father was livid that commercial businesses could be bullied that way, and that his own son was one of the radicals. It was a new aspect of me he had not guessed I would develop. He joined George Wallace’s campaign for President to show his aggravation with the way Democrats like me were telling people how to run their lives.
It began with my failure to see how any of our friends in high school were significantly defined by color. It went on with my commitment to live as a Christian making a difference. But it would never have gotten beyond a philosophical point of view if it had not been for a half- hour in an ice cream parlor following a call to action by Dr. King.
It all comes back to me, as we get ready to mark the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. John Guyer was a large figure in the foreign mission work of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Thailand. He was the tallest missionary who had ever served in Chiang Mai, and his shadow was large in many ways.
I will leave it to others with access to historical archives to write a thorough biographical sketch. Instead, I will write personal reminiscences in behalf of our generation who counted on him to be a role model as well as primary care physician.
John’s specialty, he told me carefully, was internal medicine. “I am an internist,” he said. Then he explained that his field was recently developed to differentiate it from general practice as well as other specialties such as surgery or pediatrics. He tried to cure people with pills, he explained. He was also one of the best diagnosticians in the country.
John was on the staff of McCormick Hospital in Chiang Mai when I arrived in town in August 1965. As I remember it, Dr. Boonchom Ariwongse was head of the hospital and Dr. Pipat Trangratakit was the general manager. Drs. Harold and Harriet Hanson and Dr. Ed McDaniel were other Presbyterian medical doctors at McCormick, along with Miss Helene Newman who was a midwife and instructor of midwives. McCormick was just about the only hospital in town with Suan Dawk Hospital just getting started as a university medical center with help from the University of Illinois, and other hospitals being what we would now call clinics.
So, one of the first lessons I learned is that the time had come when missionaries no longer “ran things” but were integral parts of organizations. Still, John and others were mentors for newly graduated physicians and nursing staff. They also helped the hospital develop infrastructure, a major one being a fully functional modern medical technology unit and laboratories. When Dr. Boonchom retired and Dr. Pipat was urgently moved to Bangkok Christian Hospital to help it through a transitional crisis, Dr. John reluctantly assumed the role as ACTING medical director. John wanted nothing to do with putting Americans permanently back into administrative positions in place of Thai officials.
A second lesson I learned is that McCormick Hospital considered its mission to be in fulfillment of Christ’s charge for his disciples to heal the sick and to make disciples. John’s understanding was that this was a corporate mandate; no one person on the hospital staff was to try to do everything. John consistently advocated the acquisition of specialties, which meant hiring specialists. This risky expense was, naturally, not unopposed; it is a credit to John Guyer that McCormick Hospital remained at the top of the list of hospitals outside of Bangkok as long as it did. Similarly, he prevailed in installing a new position of chaplain on the hospital staff, whose responsibilities and authority were not less than that of physicians, therapists and nurses. With John’s encouragement I spent a month in the Philippines studying how to develop a clinical pastoral education program to be run by McCormick Hospital and the Thailand Theological Seminary. Although our CPE program was not adopted, John’s project was implemented to have chaplains be fully educated seminary graduates (rather than “evangelists”). All the while in word, manner, and deed, John was a witness to the love and compassion of Christ, the Great Physician, as countless grateful patients (including me) can testify.
A third lesson was that a Christian is also a member of a Christian congregation in order to receive instruction and inspiration, but also to provide support and encouragement. In that regard, John was active in three ways. First, he was a member (and I believe an elected elder) in the First Thai Church of Chiang Mai. The Rev. Boonyeun Nataneti was the pastor. Second, John was an active member in a missionary and ex-pat worshiping fellowship that became Chiang Mai Community Church a full-fledged congregation in the Church of Christ in Thailand in 1967. Third, John and his wife Betsy were active missionary co-workers with a range of responsibilities and relationships with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a number of churches in the USA that established a particular interest in their work here in Chiang Mai.
Finally, John was a Rotarian. He was one of the founding members (I believe) of the Chiang Mai Rotary Club, the first Rotary club in Chiang Mai. He was president of the club for at least one term and attended district gatherings. This gave him access to other community leaders and recognition in the community, which he always tried to have reflect beneficially onto the church and hospital rather than on himself.
Word has reached us that Dr. John Guyer died on January 1, 2018. May God’s soothing hand rest on Betsy, Janet, and Jim and his family, as well as on all of us who remember John Guyer gratefully and fondly. In the end, as McCormick professes on every sack of medicine it dispenses from its pharmacy that John helped develop, “We provide medicine but Christ heals.” The final healing is into eternal peace and salvation.
Thanks to the Payap University Archives for these two vintage pictures of Dr. John Guyer.
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Ban (our niece) and Saek (sounds like Sack) had a stripped-down wedding a week before Christmas. Here’s what I saw and how it differed from more elaborate Thai weddings.
Arrangements were made when Saek’s family came from Payao to visit with Ban’s family in Jom Jaeng, Sanpatong outside of Chiang Mai. Both families included the parents and responsible elders, usually aunts and uncles. The gathering took place in an empty room with everyone sitting on mats on the floor, all on the same level within eyesight of everyone else. Saek’s uncle, representing the groom’s side of the family, began the conversation by commenting on the two young people having chosen each other. There was a chorus of agreement. Clearly the emphasis was on a cheerful consensus. “They love each other,” he said. The room echoed with happy expressions of agreement. Step by step the conversation ambled through the familiar platitudes with all voices blending in harmony. Many meetings are more sedate. The thing needed in this one was not only agreement, but enthusiasm. There must be no doubt that this is a joint arrangement. It is a merger of two clans that have only this one point of contact. Saek stared at the ceiling, the floor, the open windows, anywhere but into anyone’s eyes. Ban got busy passing water glasses around. Someone handed the uncle a slip of paper which he stared at intensely for a few seconds before handing it to Saek’s father. Ban’s aunt spoke up, “This is all for the young couple.” Heads nodded. Talk never faltered but turned to what auspicious day to have the wedding. It was now about “when” rather than “whether”. Calendars were needed and Saek, with a look of profound relief left the room to find one to sort out good dates for undertaking a major life enterprise. In short order it was agreed that the wedding would be as simple as can be, right there at home, in the morning a week later, with a meal fixed by neighbors. It seemed to be all tied up, so lunch was served.
One extravagance was allowed when wedding plans were proceeding. The living room was to be decorated with a backdrop festooned with flowers.
Before dawn on wedding day, the bride and her mother had their “hair done” and got cosmetic treatment. The bride and groom had rented traditional outfits that were specifically for weddings only in the sense that they were matching white with gold threads. All was ready soon after dawn except the wedding meal, and that was well under way.
Then waiting began filled with fussing about whether something had been forgotten.
At about ten in the morning the groom’s family arrived and was met down the lane to be accompanied to the bride’s house. Play-acting is part of a wedding. Certain vestiges of custom were re-enacted. First, the groom and his entourage made their arrival clear. A grander wedding might have a band of musicians and firecrackers. In this case there were just a few whoops and shouts. At the bride’s front gate two of the bride’s friends holding a gold chain blocked the path. It was up to the groom’s mother to bargain with the gate-keepers. They dropped the chain for a hundred baht ($3) but in other weddings the right to pass can be more expensive. Often there are games played in which a phony bride is presented or the real bride is hidden away. Innovation is what keeps this interesting. It can take a lot of time and be loads of fun, particularly if the principal players are plied with alcohol. There were only 3 chains blocking the way to Ban.
Then the wedding began with the 2 families seated on opposite sides of the wedding area. First the groom’s parents presented the bride’s parents with gifts the bride’s family had disclosed they required (on that piece of paper that was not directly discussed on the day of arrangements). In a more elaborate wedding this might have been a separate ceremony at a different place, even on a different day. Saek’s parents presented a red jewelry case and a gift of cash wrapped in a red net cloth. They had been carried in on two small tray tables elaborately decorated with tiny flowers and folded petals symbolizing several aspects of a successful marriage. The groom opened the jewelry box his parents had (presumably) provided and gave a gold chain, bracelet, and ring to the bride. She gave him a gold ring from the same box. Diamond rings are not traditional, but that’s changing. The bride’s mother untied the cash and spread it out appreciatively and then carried it on her shoulder into the bridal chamber (bedroom nearby). She was repeating in action what an aunt had implied at the arrangement meeting -- that this cash was for the newlyweds.
[In only a small way was this a “bride price” as it is described by anthropologists. The idea is not that the bride is being purchased and paid for, but that the bride’s mother is being compensated. The Thai narrative is all about repaying the mother for her “milk” given to her daughter. Milk, of course, is a metaphor for the whole effort of gestation and child-rearing. But it underscores Thai veneration of mothers. Boys traditionally repay their mothers for their milk by being ordained and transferring merit to their mothers. (Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/why-be-a-short-term-monk)]
This was all preliminary to the actual wedding. Up to now the wedding had been about gaining consent and agreement. Then, in a short ceremonious way, the bride and groom paid honor, kneeling to their parents in turn. This can involve an exchange of leis and floral rings, but not this time.
The bride and groom were escorted to seats (much like prie-dieux) behind a low coffee table. They were side by side. Next to them was a traditional bai sri flower arrangement. [Here is a link to a blog about this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/calling-for-kwan ] At no point in any traditional Thai wedding do the bride and groom exchange vows or necessarily say anything at all. For this simple ceremony there was no professional leader to chant a blessing or to anoint the couple with white clay dots on their foreheads. The fathers did the honors of entwining the couple’s heads with a cord that in some literal and symbolic way “tied the knot.” Thus they were wedded.
The validity of the wedding consists of the express wishes of the bride and groom (no Thai wedding is initiated without it in this day and age), and the express agreement of the two clans without which sustaining the marriage would be doubtful. In effect, it is entirely up to the two families to ratify the marriage, which needs no religious or governmental authority to be authentic and durable. It is not part of a Northern Thai Buddhist wedding to have priests involved, although a couple might go to a temple for the same sort of blessing people would get on birthdays or other auspicious occasions. This is in sharp contrast to Christian weddings, including Christian weddings in Thailand, where the church presides and the wedding is about a contract between the bride and groom with the church’s oversight, with the church acting in Western cultures also as an agent for the state. The couple may go to the district office and register their marriage. This provides legal authority for a couple to act as a unit to claim government benefits or to buy and sell property, for example. But a couple is just as married in the eyes of society and the law if they do not do that. Ban and Saek have not yet registered their marriage.
The formal ceremony continued with tying white cords on the wrists of the bride and groom. That is designed to include everyone in bestowing blessings and gifts. The gifts were cash in envelopes deposited in a heart-shaped paper-mache box situated in front of the couple. Sometimes the gift was handed to the bride who slipped it into the box. If there had been an announcer, people would have been invited to come forward by groups; people knew the routine at this little wedding. The normal order of seniority begins with grandparents and then by age, relationship, and social rank until no one is left out. Each person takes a length of white cotton cord consisting of 9 strands, and ties it onto the wrist of one or both of the couple while wishing them well, either in ordinary words or in a traditional chant.
Dinner was being distributed by this time. So it was just the parents and a couple of the most senior close relatives who symbolically led the couple into their bridal chamber. The bed had been specially prepared and was to be strewn with flower petals. The couple was seated on the bed and given marriage instructions. Although it can be entertaining and moving, Ban and Saek’s parents skipped this formality. The couple was provided their first meal as a married couple and symbolically bedded for a few short minutes.
That concluded the re-enactment of the traditional Northern Thai Wedding.
In this wedding we noticed that pictures were taken, but unlike larger weddings photography was neither intrusive nor were any aspects of the wedding set up for the sake of pictures. The bride was not the star as in weddings where everything is all about her on her big day. No mention was made of placating spirits in the supernatural realm, although the jao thii was no doubt informed that Saek would be moving into the house; it was not part of the wedding. No aspect of religion was part of the wedding.
Everything after that was party. The 70 guests had lunch paid for by the bride’s family, with help from the gifts in the heart-shaped box. Many weddings have another party at night that might include a feast and speeches by dignitaries as well as an interview of the couple and a professional video about their romantic life. If these are in a major hotel the cost can skyrocket. Ban and Saek didn’t have any of that.
A traditional Northern Thai wedding happens when a couple asks their extended families to agree to their marriage.
Merry Christmas is always difficult. I’ve been pondering the irony of this for perhaps 75 of my 77 Christmases. My earliest Christmas memory is of being shocked on Christmas morning when I stuck my finger in an electric socket that was running my new Lionel train. That Christmas needed help becoming merry again. Hugs did it, I distinctly remember.
Christmas number 25 for me was hard, too. Every tradition that anchored Christmas for me was replaced with something new as I lived Christmas in Thailand, thousands of miles away from home for the first time. It was difficult for me to comprehend that the things we were doing were traditions for most everyone but me. And there was a war going on, on every side of Thailand, getting closer.
Then came the Christmas when we scraped up just $10 for presents, the Christmas with a little baby, the Christmas somebody died, and the Christmas of the divorce. Every one of my 75 Christmases has involved compromise with an image of ideal Christmas. Sometimes the gap between the ideal and the real was glossed over by activities, sometimes bridged by family gatherings, and sometimes narrowed by carrying slices of merriment to others.
Christmas is complex. It is personal, communal, and universal, all at the same time.
Somewhere I acquired the idea that a couple of pieces ought to be given attention if I am to realize CHRISTMAS and it is to be authentically MERRY.
First is the concept that enough is enough. Adequacy and appropriateness are circumstantial. One can drop some elements of Christmas that have been important. This Christmas you can do it another way. Some people will just skip Christmas and be merry without it. But if I am to have a Merry Christmas I must be helping make people merry. Christmas will take some effort. Merry Christmas always takes effort on somebody’s part. My attention for many Christmases was on enabling great celebrations for churches and universities. Then for a few Christmases Pramote and I “brought Christmas” to children in our neighborhood school by having a Christmas party for them that included a Christmas tree, Christmas singing and games, and lunch with ice cream. The school was closed this year, so we’ll be passing out sacks of Christmas goodies at our front gate to kids on their way to school, it being Monday. Christmas has evolved this way.
The second piece of Christmas is celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. For decades that was my central focus, the reason for the season, and all that. The grand music, the candles and bells, and the festive liturgy were all about contemporizing an event that changed the way the world turns, ideally. Christmas meant, for me, transforming culture’s most familiar story into an element of that year’s main event. Now, that aspect of Christmas is no longer what it used to be. I come from a culture trying to wage war on those who do Christmas differently, as well as those who propose to do anything else this time of year. It’s hard in America to be merry and gay, or poor, or disabled. Threats to “merry” are multiplying but “Christmas” is also challenging for me. I live in a solidly Buddhist culture, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist family, and have to create whatever it is that constitutes a Nativity celebration. It is difficult and the results are uneven.
We can have “merry” without “Christmas” and “Christmas” without “merry”. But it takes effort to have both. It takes patience and lowered expectations. It always involves going outside the plan to redesign a piece of it. No merry Christmas will ever be what it’s ever been.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.