Napat and Nan got married the other day. It was a grand affair that involved a lot of participants. That was part of the idea, to give people in their lives the honor and fun of being included. The other part of the design of the day was to project a vision, a dream, for the future. Weddings ought to do that. Weddings should reflect the aspirations and identities of the couple.
This wedding was a fusion of traditions. [See pictures A – F]
The day began with a Chinese-Lanna procession of the groom and his kinfolk to the bride’s family who are ethnic Chinese. The bride and groom were dressed in red Chinese costumes. There was a ceremony of the couple offering tea to the parents.
In the afternoon the costumes were “tie and tails” for the groom and a white gown and long lace veil for the bride that took four pages and bride’s maids to handle. Music and ceremony vied for attention for the next two hours. The musicians were former teachers, little children, and musical colleagues of the groom. The bride is a medical doctor whose co-workers were very busy with COVID, but some came as they could. The couple exchanged vows and rings in the traditional way, and then were serenaded (there’s no other word for what came next). One of the enthusiastic performers on a violin was the groom. Equally exuberant was the announcer who seemed intent on getting the bride and groom to break out of their last shreds of solemnity.
Then the festivities moved to an outer courtyard where musicians entertained everyone while they nibbled on snacks, took pictures with the couple, and collected bags of the vegetables that had been decorating the platform. This was the bride’s idea, reflecting her commitment to utility over extravagance.
21st century Thai wedding traditions have changed in several important ways. The ceremony has become increasingly optional; if and when there is a ceremony are left up to the couple. Almost all couples have begun life together tentatively, and then there is acceptance that the friendship has become a relationship, which gradually includes both of the couple’s families. A traditional Thai wedding consists almost entirely of these two families formally agreeing and blessing the couple, signified by tying cords around the couple’s wrists while intoning good wishes. If the families could afford it there was a party, as lavish as possible.
Recently, these receptions/parties have become diverse. They often have a theme. They project aspects of the couple’s life and fantasies. They involve participation and performance. If the event is “themed,” those who attend are told about the theme so they know what to wear. Some of the actors have definite costumes and scripts or opportunities to do something expressing the theme.
The theme for Nan and Napat’s wedding, according to one lady, was “Royal.” Women were invited to wear hats and men to have suits appropriate for a European royal wedding. The royal theme incorporated a Christian service (with four clergy involved who had been friends of the family for decades). The theme was also music, incorporating performances mostly by younger friends.
Exactly 3 years ago Mew and Saw had the most elaborate themed wedding Pramote and I ever attended. [See pictures G – M] It began with an afternoon of Northern Thai and Burmese traditions. There was a procession, a “kong sabat” drum dance, a shaman dancer, and blessing of the couple by all the guests. Costumes were supposed to be ethnic as it was presumed the elite dressed a hundred years ago. The party was at night the next day and it was a circus theme with clowns, acrobats, magicians, side shows, and all. Producing themed events was what the groom’s family did for a living. They did their utmost for this one.
I started out as a clergy officiating at weddings about 800 weddings ago (averaging 50 every year I was a pastor in the USA). At that time only one form of wedding service was available. Only the names of the bride and groom changed, although music varied.
Cathedral-like weddings with hotel or resort receptions are not out of style but there are more choices of themes recently. I predict that themed weddings will become the preference for those who want their wedding day to be extraordinary.
Weddings and funerals are two occasions when customs most clearly differ between ethnic groups, even in this age of cultural melding and overlap. Why are themed weddings coming into vogue here in Thailand? Here are my speculations:
· They make the event unique. The couple and their families are establishing a mark on society.
· They communicate particular ideas. The couple is highlighting their main concerns.
· They infringe on elite territory. Weddings that used to be reserved for special echelons (royalty, military, aristocracy, etc.) can be imitated. This is post-modern democratization in action. In Thailand the middle class is rising.
· They are fun. Themed weddings are much more “play” than traditional ones.
This essay about themed weddings completes my ruminations about weddings.
Previous blog essays have elaborated on weddings. See:
Essays about costumes include:
Elder Tan of Mae Tang, North of Chiang Mai, was a popular preacher of the old school. He was also a self-proclaimed expert on Buddhist mythology. He had specialized in applying many of the Buddhist myths to Christian evangelism. In particular, he believed that the myth of Araya Maetrai is a prophecy of the coming of Christ, rather than of the coming of another Buddha 5000 years after Gautama. Tan recalled all sorts of details about this to support his contention that Christianity is not a foreign religion, because Christianity was actually foretold by the Lord Buddha himself.
As far as I know, Uncle Tan is the only evangelist who espoused this view. I wonder what might have happened if his idea had taken hold. I woke up at about four one recent morning thinking that Christianity in Thailand has never established itself as having roots in sacred time, as Tan’s message would have done. As long as Christianity is a late-comer without roots in the mythic past it is an intruder.
There are several mythic strains that support the belief that Buddhism is the legitimate religion for the people of this land. The prevailing myth here in the north is that the Lord Buddha traveled throughout the land in sacred time. He rested here and there, leaving some physical evidence, a hair around which people built a sacred mound and kept venerating the Buddha in that place, or a footprint imprinted in rock. In this way the land has been appropriated as part of sacred space. Most importantly, the Lord Buddha met giants who ruled these northern hills and converted them [the picture above of Chiang Dao Cave entrance is one place this is said to have happened].
I believe that some such mythic legitimacy must be established for every religion for it to become one that firmly belongs where it is found. There must be an unshakeable faith that the religion, as it is now, has legitimacy as the descendant or successor to cosmic ancestry as mediated by sacred intermediaries.
Christianity claimed the northern part of Europe by latching onto the myth of Ragnarok. That myth told of an epic battle in which the old Nordic gods died. At their death missionaries of the heir came with the news of the spread of the new faith. They entered lands vacated by the old gods. “The risen Christ is come,” they announced.
Christianity prefers the idea of death and resurrection to that of improvement. Even conversion must involve a form of death and resurrection. When it comes to cultures, the old must be eradicated, as the missionaries did to the Aztecs and Incas.
On the other hand, once in a while the idea of “prophecy fulfilled” overwhelms the preference for violent overthrow. Baptist missionaries in Burma found that the ethnic people in the north had an old expectation of a white prophet flying in on the wind with a golden book of life. The missionaries were white, their ships seemed to fit the story, and the Bibles they carried were trimmed with gold and told of “eternal life.”
In North America, however, the myths of the indigenous peoples did not comport with the supremacist views of the colonists from Europe. The native ideas of a great prevailing Spirit with a generous nurturing Mother were too much like heathen pantheism. The savage tribes needed to be purged. What’s more, they were in the way of a divine imperative, the “Manifest Destiny” of the new nation to expand from sea to shining sea. The mythic notion that empowered the colonists was their belief that wherever they went the place of their dwelling was ipso facto sacred. The land became sacred by sacred people being there.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), took this “sense of destiny” a step further by telling how God’s people had been present on North American soil long before 1492, through the immigration of lost tribes of Israel after the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians. A myth like this is powerful if it takes root deeply enough.
In Japan that has not happened. The mythic past has not been extended to include Christianity as its present-day evolution. The scattering of Christians across Japan has been insufficient to tip the balance and revolutionize the myth. For several decades it has looked like that was about to take place in Korea, but now the failure of Christianity to find its mythic roots in the heart of Korea may be undermining the shift. In the Philippines Christianity patiently absorbed ethnic culture without trying to wipe it out ( I think that’s what happened).
Buddhism in the USA has yet to penetrate into the mythic layer of faith beyond small ethnic immigrant communities which are to some extent in the process of becoming integrated. When Buddhism moves beyond its “native lands” it tends to be sustained as a philosophical set of concepts.
In Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and India Christianity remains as enclaves making no claim to be the dominant religion of culture or state, much less the national religion. It exists as “one of God’s colonies” in an alien environment. Without mythic roots embedded in the sacred past, aside from the vague assertion that God created the whole world, Christianity is still under development. It is on the way toward enculturation in a millennium or so, or perhaps heading for eradication in those places where the dominant religion becomes militant.
What makes us tick? That’s a question from my childhood. My considered answer after some 80 years is that four functions drive us. They are:
physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual
This is not universally accepted. Materialists insist there is only one function, the physical (that is, chemical, physical, and electric). Many other post-Enlightenment theories say we are physical and mental. After Freud, some reluctantly add emotional. In earlier times everything was subsumed under the spiritual heading. I think all 4 are valid but rather than argue philosophically, I will discuss how we function holistically.
In order to demonstrate the reality of a function the first step is to agree that it makes things happen all by itself, without anything else contributing. Are there physical functions that do not need anything mental, emotional or spiritual to make them happen? Of course there are. Heartbeat and digestion, to mention two, are involuntary and go on even when one is comatose.
Mental functions include thinking. Creative inspiration, high IQs, and out-of-body experiences are mental. They are remarkable, but the fact that they are not caused by any of the other three functions proves (to me) that they are discrete.
Emotional functions are usually described as feelings. The list is long. Anger, satisfaction, affection, suspicion and sadness are but five of them. These emotions often involve thought, but they are prior to mental thoughts and independent of them at the beginning. Emotions behave in irrational ways, and they are as often caused by as they are the causes of physical responses. The validity of an emotional-quotient (EQ) is gaining attention.
Spiritual functions cannot be described separate from mental actions. It takes mental activity to comprehend whatever is going on with us that is spiritual. Nevertheless, as with wind, we may not see it but we perceive its effects. Spiritual experiences have results. Those include insight not derived from thinking but from what is gained when thinking has reached its end. Spiritual functions form a capsule or frame within when we live and move and have our being.
These single functions are not all that move us. Usually they are combined. For example, a physical-mental impulse is probably the most common motivator in everyday living. Hunger and pain are two mental activities that have physical triggers. Most of the time we are moved by multiple forces.
Let’s say we are faced with a social challenge: a neighbor is causing us trouble. Our frustration (emotion) pushes us to try to figure out (mental) what to do. As we grapple with how to deal with the neighbor we realize our options are of two types, essentially: action against the neighbor or managing to resolve our own emotional turmoil. Our spiritual character might well be the part of the mix that sorts it out for us.
In real life almost all of our conscious “doing and being” involve all four functions. Each of them contributes to the incessant chain of problem-wrestling and solving that goes on in our heads as well as a result of habit and trained responses. In short, we tick automatically. Almost everything we do doesn’t take a lot of doing. We just do it. That leaves us better off to concentrate on the thing foremost at the moment.
That brings us to activities that are interruptive or outstanding. Sometimes they take over. In almost all of these occurrences one of the four functions dominates, but only for an instant. Vomiting, orgasm, and sneezing are spasms. Even though they are involuntary muscular contractions, they occur in a context. A lot of thinking is going on, emotions are peaking, physical responses are only partly under control. For an instant the spasms are all that matter and cannot be diverted, but even as they are going on the context is being manipulated by all of our four functions sorting, searching, and seizing options about what to do now. This unified confluence involves elemental DISCERNMENT.
As we grow in maturity, we grow in discernment.
What we learn to discern is how all of our functions are working together all the time and how they are refined as we grow so our best interests are met with the least necessary effort.
Normally, we go along from one planned or spontaneous activity to another. We decide to sweep the sidewalk or call a relative. Then the cat wants out. We get back to filling out a report and decide we’d be better after a cup of tea. Each of those actions is composed of countless micro-actions. Overall, they contribute to a makro-action, a pattern of activities that constitute a part of who we are right now and in this time of life. Makro-actions are developed and transformed as we go along.
Life, however, is random. It makes victims of us, but maturity helps us keep on moving, hopefully, moving toward less urgency.
A nephew, this week, switched from married life back to being single. A lot of actions were involved in this major change of direction. Some of them were primarily emotional. Now, he will need to discern how the disruption has produced fragments to be composed into a new plan for life and find a new-normal.
That’s how life works. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.