REMINISENCE ABOUT REENTRY
The idea I had in going to Thailand in 1965 when the invitation came, was to gain experience that would help me understand more about what the church was doing in the world. My plan was to gain valuable experiences of the church at work. By that time I had been the religion editor for the Jacksonville Journal Courier, chaplain’s assistant in locked wards in the Jacksonville State Hospital, student pastor in the Arenzville Presbyterian Church, assistant to the director of the Department of Camps of the Presbytery of Chicago and more. Overseas mission would fill in a gap because, “How could a pastor be completely ready to serve without knowing what the church is doing in its foreign missions?” (It was a naïve question. Most pastors cared very little about foreign missions. That was going to impact the United Presbyterian Church (USA) heavily in less than a decade.)
Succinctly, my plan was to immerse myself in Thailand for what the UPC called a “short term” and then return to the USA to get on with being a Presbyterian minister – after an additional year and a half at St. Andrews in Scotland to get a PhD in ‘applied theology,” for which I was accepted.
I had not counted on Thailand being life-changing. The ways that happened included: discovering an affinity for Thailand and its people (including, surprisingly, the language), the proximity of the Vietnam War to Thailand and the imminent threat we felt from Communist totalitarianism, the realization that NOW was the time to get married, and the change of regulations in UK higher education that suddenly raised the cost of the PhD out of reach.
The second half of my 4 years as a teacher in the Thailand Theological Seminary was characterized by challenges and accomplishment. As a missionary I developed a multi-media center (with Gerry Dyck), served as the first co-pastor of the Chiangmai Community Church (with John Butt), wrote a textbook entitled Worship as Celebration of Life (which was translated into Thai by Francis Seely and his Thai Textbook Project team), and I was the first American teacher in the brand new school for Buddhist priests and novices in Wat Prasingh.
Then it came to an end.
Whoops! New plan.
Needing something to do while finding a job I signed up for a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) back at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. The place had changed unbelievably in the 4 years I had been away. It was “the Age of Aquarius” post-Woodstock. We arrived just after the Puerto Rican gang, the Junior Latin Counts, had given up their “take over” of the seminary as their headquarters to try to stop the gentrification of Lincoln Park neighborhood. Chicago was radicalized after the riots at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And the turning point of the anti-war movement was a dominant part of everything.
I was more disoriented than I had ever been.
I have rarely felt as much a misfit as I did that year back in Chicago. The only things that made it bearable were related to Thailand, not to Chicago – up to then “my town, town that I loved.” During that year I provided editorial help to Kamol Aryapratheep as she worked toward becoming the first Thai theologian with a Doctor of Theology degree. I collected creative projects from my years in Thailand, including liturgies, stories, and text for a cantata to be my STM project. I learned how to work with a film lab to edit a Thai version of “The Loving Father” (based on the Prodigal Son parable), which I had scripted and directed, shot on 16mm film by Leonard Crane at National Council of Churches expense. I had my first academic article published in the South East Asia Journal of Theology.
One thing was clear by May 1970: my place in the church was as a pastor. It was not possible to return to Thailand because the UPC budget for overseas fraternal workers (missionaries) was running in the red. I needed an entry-position in the USA to get started. My decade of “gaining experience” was over. It was time to settle down. But nothing I had done was convincing enough to pastoral search committees that I could handle the job as a pastor. All my experiences, ironically, had made me “overqualified,” said key committee members in Decatur IL, Basking Ridge NJ, Lancaster PA, State College PA, and a half dozen other churches where I was invited to be interviewed.
Then, in the first week of May, 1970, just days before graduation and eviction from seminary housing, Jim Bigley and the committee of the United Presbyterian Church of Maple Heights, Ohio, agreed to take a chance on me.
That was the answer we needed … and not a moment too soon.
REMINISCENCE ABOUT A NUDGE INTO A NEW DIRECTION
During our last year and a half in the ministry program at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1963-5, Lyle, Jim and I spent a lot of time considering our career options. In those days choices spread before us: pastoral ministry, missionary service, urban-industrial ministry, theological education, church music, Christian education, and many more. The three of us had honed our concern in the direction of the inner-city. Inner-cities were places of commerce surrounded by residential decay into which were crowded immigrants, migrants, and vagrants.
By our third and final year at McCormick we knew a lot about the inner-city since McCormick was right on the fringe of one. Our seminary also specialized in preparing people to minister in the inner-city. One entire department of the seminary offered a Master’s degree in “Church and Community”. Of all the Presbyterian seminaries, McCormick was the place to go to train for that challenging field. The other seminary was non-denominational Union Theological Seminary in New York City, connected to Columbia University.
There were three primary forms of inner-city ministry. Most prominently were established churches which had been there when the residential ring was prosperous. Successful churches had welcomed or been established for immigrant groups. Chicago was famous for its Polish, Italian, and Lithuanian neighborhoods into which then migrated Mexicans, Puerto Rican, and African-American residents. The second form of inner-city ministry was centered on “neighborhood houses” modeled after Jane Addams’s famous Hull House. The newest form was just gaining notice, and we three were noticing that. Its model was the East Harlem Protestant Parish (EHPP) in New York City.
EHPP was one of a number of combined community-living and social-justice experiments being undertaken in the Post-World-War-II era between 1950 and 1980. EHPP was established in 1948 (and dissolved officially in 1977). The first three ministers were 3 graduates of Union Theological Seminary. They began with a storefront church and lived in urban housing in the neighborhood, as close and accessible to the people as they could get. Funding for the parish came from 7 supporting denominations, the National Council of Churches, and Union Theological Seminary. The key concepts, and what set the parish apart from other inner-city ministry, was (1) COMMUNITY worship as the core of daily living, (2) COMMUNITY empowerment through improvement of community organizations for leadership development, (3) and COMMUNITY activism including (a) robust opposition to real estate exploitation, (b) reaction to police brutality and corruption, (c) response to the horrible education provided by inner-city schools, (d) and opposition to narcotic trafficking (brought by organized crime syndicates with local participation) and, at the same time, action to get addiction treated medically rather than as a crime.
We three classmates had a plan. We would get ourselves into position through an entry-level post-seminary experience of three or four years, and then we would don the gray clergy costume of the EHPP and move into one of Chicago’s blighted neighborhoods. Our target was 1969 to set up a “prep-school” as our first project. One has to start with something that was needed. All the neighborhoods had churches, but the schools were failures – turning out failures as graduates who were not educated, not energized, and not equipped to do much of anything with their lives except inhabit the dangerous and decayed environment from which they would find it impossible to move. As we gathered for tea in my dorm room we grew enthusiastic as we were aware of the way the three of us, from our diverse backgrounds, complemented each other. The prep-school would be a boarding school. It would be inclusive and unstinting. We’d expect excellence. We would exude confidence, even though we had a very realistic idea about the challenges.
But by 1969 that was no longer a plan we could build on. 1965 to 1969 saw war come full-blown to Vietnam, assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. – bringing the end of idealism and the rise of urban violence. The church was losing ground as a force for urban activism, and “community” was becoming impossible in the soon-to-be demolished housing projects. Our Chicago Inner-city Prep School dream faded. Each of the three of us had also been nudged into new directions of ministry.
Still I wonder, as one does at a stage of life such as this, from this distance of 50 years, if our hours of tea and talk were entirely vain. The resonance of that enthusiasm has never entirely disappeared, and its vibrations have shaken almost every enterprise I’ve undertaken since. I was sad in 1969 to get back to McCormick and the inner-city was not to be my venue. The plan we toasted with tea faded, but the impulse to stay close to the ground where people are has not faded.
[The picture accompanying this reminiscence gives a clue as to the endurance of the idealism as I bounced from one plan of ministry to another, rarely getting far from street level.]
On New Year’s Eve a team came to cut down our big Dawk Khae Tree. I didn’t agree to this lightly. This tree in particular had become meaningful to me.
Pramote and I acquired this land in 2006 and we had it filled in, in order to build our house higher than the level of surrounding rice fields. The dirt came from away from here. After we built a house on the back corner of this elevated area a tree sprouted next to the house. In about 5 years the tree began to produce flowers of a sort, rather rare for here, that have market value as a component in a bitter curry. Pramote’s sister gathered these flowers from the ground each morning for sale. She sometimes cooked them. (I wrote about this in a blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/dawk-khae ).
The tree grew fast and had to be trimmed every two or three years. It endured pruning without noticeable protest and then grew even more robust. I noticed this. Since the tree was right outside my window I watched wildlife come and go. Bees and wasps loved the flowers. A florescent lizard frequented the tree and so did little squirrels and a chipmunk. Birds rested and nested there. I have seen a couple of snakes in it hunting for field mice or baby birds.
As the tree grew bigger, however, its roots began to push up under the house. The sidewalk cracked and the foundation was threatened. Left alone the tree would win in a contest between itself and the house. So at the end of this flowering season the tree was cut down. It will try to sprout again, as trees do here, but this will be prevented. Unlike a fruit tree that fell over 10 years ago in our back orchard and has now sprouted 6 new trees, the dawk khae tree is effectively deceased.
In a way, this wasn’t just another of our 200 trees. It was one I noticed that provided shade, fascination, and income. That is, it made these things available to us as we took advantage of them. The choice was ours. The tree was passive. To our co-inhabitants on this plot of earth (reptiles and rodents, birds and bees) the tree provided other things.
Contemplating the tree has been worthwhile.
It sprouted voluntarily. It came into existence without consent, as we all do. We happen. Then we develop as is our nature, according to our circumstances. If we have space and sustenance, we flourish. If competition or disease befall us, our development might be extenuated.
Meanwhile, between the beginning and the end, we and the tree go on providing OPPORTUNITIES. Humans tend to believe in INTENTIONS. We think what is important about our contribution to the world is what we meant to do. Those are the meritorious things. That is how we calculate our value, by our fulfilled plans. But this is pretty limited, come to think about it. Virtually everything that is valuable to others about the tree is the opportunities the tree affords. The tree “intends” none of it, not the nesting places, the nutrition of its fallen flowers, nor the aesthetic and philosophical benefits such as I have derived.
It comes as something of a blow to my ego to realize that I am probably more like the tree in this regard than I might wish to be. A great many of my grand plans have attracted no attention nor have they provided benefit equal to their cost and effort. But I have been told on a few occasions that I have changed the courses and outcomes of some people’s lives by simply being somewhere, expressing something, or offering a place for someone to rest and recover. This pushes me to re-evaluate my time and resource-consuming intentions, because they could be defeating much value that I might be providing.
What if we were to orient our living to be more like the tree? As we grow, flower, and express our innate potential, would we not thereby also be of more use in the divine and natural scheme of things? That is how the tree does it.
Of course, I am not a tree. I have mobility, consciousness, and an opposing thumb. I have a brain and soul. Our human race has technology, by which we measure our superiority over other species. It is debatable that the tree has any of these. But it is also debatable that these capabilities make us superior to trees or give us independence. Still they are endowments that could be used to maximize our responses. We need not be entirely passive in our recognition of opportunities we could provide.
I suppose I am merely trying to ruminate on the significance of our tree before it fades from memory. I am also a little sad that the tree had to go. Now that 2022 has begun and the tree has gone, I miss them both. Some things go because it is their time, or because they wear out. The tree is gone because it had a lower priority to us than the house. There are valid measurements of such things as this.
On the run-up to 2022 (or 2565 as it’s more commonly called here) there is an almost painful longing for things to RETURN TO NORMAL. That view of the year to come is an illusion.
Things are never going to be what they were. There is no going back.
The troubles that inspire our longing are, in fact, both instruments and impediments to inevitable change in the way things are done, in the circumstances that now pertain, and in the tools and skills we will be needing.
This pandemic is the latest health crisis to sweep the world. New ones will come. Each one taught valuable coping and survival lessons as they rose and diminished. We can now see no end to the Corona Virus, COVID-19. But going on will mean doing things differently from now on. We will not be going back to social gatherings in the same way we used to take for granted. School will not be taught in the same way. Religious services are going to have to be done differently. We now are beginning to realize that nothing commercial, academic, religious or political can be entirely done at a distance, using technology; but from now on nothing will be done fully without it, not even religious services. But I expect religions to be among the most reluctant to face reality.
That is the short of it. Our own generation of young people is going to innovate.
As for the longer range, my predictions are of two types, dire and hopeful. I stand by my predictions, even though I am unlikely to be around to be accountable for the outcomes.
1. The South China Sea is the most likely flash-point for an outbreak of World War III.
2. The world’s sixth extinction event has now passed the point where it could be reversed.
3. Artificial intelligence will develop a capacity for innovation and independence.
1. World religions will play a key role in the recovery from the collapse of post-modernism.
2. Authoritarian nationalism inevitably develops the causes of its own demise.
3. Interplanetary colonization will be impractical although outposts may be set up as tenuously as they were in Antarctica in the 20th century.
Finally, the main lesson I learned from the year 2021 now happily ending, is that we cannot avoid danger but there are vaccines for some of them. Blessings, friends and fellow travelers as we hasten into hope lest we lapse into despair.
For Mona the mad rush up to Christmas had been a living hell. Nothing she had planned had come out right. Not the trip back home for Thanksgiving, nor the early shopping for gifts for her sister’s twins. The water heater had to be replaced, and that took the whole Christmas Club savings account, as well as a big chunk of her bonus pay check. Plus, the economy had kept people out of the store in droves. But the worst was that every organization under the sun was having a party, and she had to go to them all or suffer the consequences which were too horrible to contemplate.
So when Mona managed to sink into a pew at the Christmas Eve service it was not the big early service she had wanted to attend with all the choirs and candles. She hadn’t been able to get finished with things until almost ten, so she struggled in to the midnight service. And, for that service, she was early. She had read the paper wrong and got to the church a half hour before anyone else.
The room was silent except for a little traffic noise and the sound of the December wind. The lights were dim. Only the light on the cross and a great lighted Christmas star drew her attention. For long minutes Mona absorbed the silence and the lights shining in the darkness. Bit by bit Mona softened from the inside out. She really needed to hear God say something comforting, but instead she saw light from a cross and a star shining in the darkness. When she took the light into her heart it was what she needed.
HOW I DO CHRISTMAS AS THE ONLY CHRISTIAN AROUND HERE
First, the setting: Pramote and I live in Ban Den village about an hour from the center of Chiang Mai. Ban Den is a community of about 500 people of whom 499 are Buddhist including Pramote. There are no Christians in Pramote’s family either. We are active in village life.
How we do Christmas is never the same twice.
We decorate. Our collection of Christmas lights, trees, and articles has grown. Our house is viewed by all who pass. After 15 years our pretty decorations are expected. Pramote loves doing this in time for his birthday on December 12. The lights stay up until New Year’s Day. This is a “gift” of lights and color for our neighbors and relatives.
Children are special. Christmas is on Saturday this year, so we will have all the village children stop by for hot dogs and ice cream. Last year we passed out bags of goodies to children on their way to school. A few years ago we conducted an annual Christmas Party for the children in our village school – but the school closed.
Party time. Two years ago we had a day-long open house with noodles and treats for children at noon, lunch for 20 priests and novices, and then a buffet supper for friends, relatives, and neighbors. Before supper we had an informal Christmas worship service for those interested. I dressed up as a type of Father Christmas (see the picture attached to this account). This year, due to COVID, we are having four smaller affairs, two on Pramote’s birthday, and two on Christmas Day.
How I do Christmas has varied from year to year. On Christmas morning Pramote and I look forward to opening a box from daughter Julie now living with her family back in the USA; we do this in view of each other via the Internet. As for the village, somehow we do something nice for all the children around here, we have a party for all the family members who can come, and we let the village know it’s Christmas. Christmas has gained attention over the years. It’s easier than it used to be to say “It’s Christmas” and have people smile. When you’re the only Christian for miles around it’s best not to become attached to one way of celebrating.
THOUGHTS ON THAILAND’S NATIONAL DAY AND FATHER’S DAY
December 5 is both the Thai National Day as well as Father’s Day. These designations were made by the Thai government during the time Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda was prime minister. December 5 is the birthday anniversary of HM King Bumiphol, Rama IX. It is customary in Thailand to celebrate the birthdays of reigning monarchs, but Prem wanted to honor the King as “Father of the Nation” on his birthday, and HM Queen Sirikit as “Mother of the Nation” on her birthday, August 12. So, even after the coronation of King Rama X, December 5 stays on the calendar as Father’s Day, and on the UN Calendar as the Thai National Day (noticed mainly in Thai embassies abroad).
Two kings of the present Chakri dynasty in Thailand have been awarded the title Maha Raj during their lifetimes, HM King Chulalongkorn, the Great and HM King Bumiphol, the Great. As it happens, both died in the month of October and both are commemorated on those dates which are national holidays, October 23 and October 13, respectively.
They have much in common, which (I believe) is why they are venerated more “greatly” than other monarchs in modern Thai history.
1. They preserved the nation from threats. King Chulalongkorn maneuvered skillfully to prevent the Thai heartland from being colonized by either the British or the French. King Bumiphol is given credit for coalescing ethnic groups and convincing communist insurgents to become fully integrated with the rest of the country.
2. They developed affinity with people throughout the land by visiting, listening, and responding to concerns and needs for development. This is not the modus operandi for most kings here or elsewhere.
3. They both saw that (at least in their own times) agriculture was the nation’s greatest sustainable economic asset. King Chulalongkorn engineered a plan to turn land ownership over to the people living on the land and deriving livelihood from it, and he more than doubled land available for farming. King Bumiphol devoted his professional attention to royal projects that focused on crop diversification and water management. [The picture accompanying this essay is of HM King Bumiphol with American Baptist Agricultural Missionary Dick Mann in one of their several visits.] It is remembered that during his 70 years on the throne he averaged one new Royal Project per week.
These three accomplishments were in a complex context that included political and cultural factors and controversies, and they both did much more. Over the past 9 years I have posted several blogs on these topics and there is no need to repeat those comments. For those who are interested here are some links:
Gee needed to have things resolved. He was just not sure what those things were. One thing, above all, was that Gee would no longer need to cover up Al’s string of botched suicides. There would be no more efforts to deny there had been a noose in the bathroom when Al slipped and broke his arm, and then a month later to insist how poison was not the reason Al was on life support for these last ten days. Suicide is so implicating, imputing shame and suspicion. In and out of a coma, Al gave Gee time to inform his Facebook friends how hopeful and prayerful he was, and how a little money would come in handy with these mounting medical expenses.
Al had graciously endured long enough for “respiratory arrest” to appear on his death certificate. Gee was relieved by this, since it would not stand in the way of the life insurance he had taken out on him as “suicide” would have done.
For a few days Gee had fretted about the events of the past and wanted it to all be behind him. Al had gotten what he wanted. They both had, hadn’t they, escaped to freedom?
The funeral was designed to gloss over Algernon’s flaws as everybody knew them. Funerals do that. The priests had chanted away demons and enticed whatever angels could be called upon. An obscure comfort drifted around the departing mourners leaving the cemetery, having done their duty.
Gee turned his back on the smoking crematorium as if he were eluding a conflict. Old Algernon, after all, was the dead one of the two of them, even if he was not the only one being consumed by the events that were culminating in the transformative inferno.
A fleck of soot settled on Gee’s shoulder.
As Thailand gets wrapped in the euphoria of its popular holiday, Loy Kratong, the Thai Constitutional Supreme court hit us with a couple of vicious punches.
The first was a decision a few days ago that effectively elevated any public discussion of Thai royalty reform to the level of a criminal attempt to destroy the country. The second decision, handed down Thursday, declared that article 1448 of the current constitution is valid when it limits marriage to one male and one female. This delegitimizes any other forms of marriage and refuses to recognize sexual and gender diverse relationships. That brings to an end the efforts of LGBTIQA+ and human-rights groups to have article 1448 declared inconsistent with other articles which affirm equal rights to “everyone.”
“We are staggered but not knocked out,” was the reaction of activists and the alert part of the younger generation (below the age of 40, when they can begin to be taken seriously). It means that the Constitutional Supreme Court still steadfastly defends the elite and the status quo the royalist-military has set up.
So, with regard to marriage equality, efforts now turn to getting article 1448 changed. It’s not far-fetched. Key people in the government have promised to do that. It will depend on getting them back working on it and recruiting advocates who can neutralize enough of the opposition. It’s doable. Just remove the words “between a man and a woman.” It was always the strongest option.
Meanwhile, Loy Kratong is upon us. Fire crackers and hot air balloons take all our attention even if big parades and mass events have been cancelled by COVID.
Earth is our Father and rivers are our Mother. It turns out that most religions agree to some such concepts. The language may differ but the meaning is transferable. It happens that this Friday Thai people will pay homage to the Mother of Waters in the year’s biggest celebration, Loy Kratong. People will flock to rivers and estuaries to float mini-offerings in appreciation for the life-support that Mother/Rivers (and streams) provide. It is the season to remember our relationship with nature.
We live, as one Islamic spokesman reminded us, dependent on earth, as we are composed of it, live upon it in utter dependence, and return to it before long. A Hindu spokeswoman filled in the blank that it is trees that are the connecting link between heaven above from whence water comes, and earth below whereupon we exist as on an island. A Buddhist scripture reminded us that trees are shelters for birds, and a source of food for us.
The occasion in which we reminded ourselves of this unity we have with nature was an “Interreligious Tree Planting” event conducted November 15 by the Institute of Religion, Culture, and Peace of Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. About 40 participants came to plant two trees: a fruit tree symbolic of the sustenance trees provide, and a shade tree that provides comfort and protection. Short scriptures and comments were made by representatives of Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and members of the university’s student body and faculty.
Pictures accompanying this blog are from that event.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.