It's early and the mountains seem moody under a heavy smudge of
fog. The drive so far has been on back roads that are fairly straight...so far.
We are all of us quiet, easing ourselves into what is expected to be a rather robust day,
starting with this 6 a.m. departure. The moody mountains and the silence
inside the car provide me some space to be just a little moody
We are on our way to a Thanksgiving service in a rather
tucked-out-of-the-way Lahu village. The anticipation of a 'first' experience
into yet another dimension of Thai culture should be enough to take more of
center stage in my head. But it doesn't.
I'm fussing. A little. Not a lot. Well, okay, maybe
medium. Two reasons.
One is that I yesterday managed to get a bug bite right on the bone of
my right ankle, on the inside. I saw the bug on me. Not a spider,
not a mosquito. Nothing that burrowed. Just a little thing, really,
that was squashed beyond identification by my quick swipe. I didn't even
think it was a bug at first. Just a speck of mud or grass. But
after I wiped it away there was a pin prick of blood, then some mild itching
that I could ignore. By now, travelling in the car, there is a raised red
lesion about the size of a small pea, and my ankle is slightly swollen.
Hmmm. I had Yupa look at it earlier, and she said it was a common thing,
nothing to worry about. I've applied topical antihistamine, and some
highly recommended green goop Yupa bought at the market.
But now, in the moody quiet of this early drive, I am
over-assessing. Are my toes starting to get just a tad puffy? Is that a tingle going
up my calf? I keep checking. By the way, how does an exotic insect-borne
disease manifest itself, like, right at the beginning? It's a thought I
choose not to entertain.
That's okay because I'm fussing about something else
If there is a Lahu version of that now discontinued (probably because it
was so mean-spirited, I mean come on!) 'What Not To Wear' TV
show, I fear I may be walking into the next episode as the next victim.
Despite my many inquiries over the past two days, what I've chosen to wear to
this occasion in no way matches how Suradet and Yupa, as well as Bell and Da (who are along
for the ride) showed up as we were all getting into the car. They are
dressed all sensible and Sunday and Western. Nice blouse, good shoes, dress
shirt for Suradet. Me?
I went with one of my more traditional (rustic, mountain folk) Karen
shirts, all beaded and embroidered and the fringes at the armpits and
everything. This can be worn with a traditional woven skirt, but I thought,
when Yupa and I were talking about it, we were thinking more on the 'dress down' side
of things, so I went with my capris pants. And I'm in flip flops.
Because Yupa said she didn't know and it didn't
matter. Yupa has on some of her best dress
sandals. So here I am.
I asked! Many times, if I haven't already
mentioned. Because one of the lesser-known nuances of missionary life is
that no one wants the farang standing out more than they
already do, or worse, looking like they're trying too hard.
Suradet is speaking at this service, having taken on more responsibility
within his denomination, which will begin in January. So, yes, his family is
dressed for that. I know that now. But in the moody silence of the
drive, I'm feeling all kinds of awkward, even though I am fully aware that it's petty, which is also annoying.
So I'm fussing. A little. I’m able to right-size my fashion
crisis by reminding myself that at the end of the day (I say this now as an
expression, but it ironically it will actually happen 'at the end of the day'),
this is not about that. I take a few deep breaths to remind
my body - especially my right foot - that we're okay, put my hand on my
maybe-tingling calf, and give my bug bite into the care of God to do with it
anything He wants. I take another breath, confess my vanity, and let it be okay that I'm
dressed weird. And then one more, just to say thank you for what an
amazing thing it is that I'm here at all.
The straightforward drive gives way to the mountain climb, a crazy
winding and zigging that takes us up and up and deep into the jungley-forest,
no shoulders, one lane only for a two way road, and hardly able to see what's
around the corner. Sometimes there is a rather significant drop on the one
side. Sometimes there is a bamboo fence to indicate a particularly
treacherous turn. Yes, bamboo.
I am not prone to car sickness, and I don't feel queasy, but it's enough
to bother my eyes a bit if I try to look out the window. That's on
the way up. Then we go down.
Because the Lahu village is in a valley, nestled between two high, high
As soon as we turn into the main
'roadway' of the village, any fussing about my outfit vanishes.
These are colourful people!
So much colour and beading and jingling fringes. And even among them, there's a wide range of fancy. Some are in what must be their high-holiday traditional
clothes, long and fitted and brilliantly patterned. Some are wearing
traditional Lahu shirts over jeans. And some are simply in their
very best t-shirts and cotton pants. Turns out Yupa was right. She
really didn’t know what to tell me and it really didn't matter what I
The people are coming out of houses that are close together and
simple. So simple. Made of thin wooden shingles, up on
poles. Large bulls chew slowly, appearing only mildly interested in
who these strangers might be. There are deep ruts in the mud
in the narrow laneways between the houses. So many people are milling
about. Moms and Dads and Grammas and kids and babies. Suradet
says that the whole village is Christian, and this is a day everyone sets apart
to come and worship together. There certainly is an air of celebration.
We are invited for a meal of rice and salted pork, and something else
unrecognizable to me, but too spicy to dare put in my mouth anyways. We
are treated with honour, and more and more dishes appear even as we
begin. Smiles everywhere as more rice is put in front of us and we
are urged to eat, because this rice is ‘new’. Apparently there’s a
difference in taste and texture when the rice has been so recently
harvested. I didn’t know.
This is the pastor's house, also rustic, simple, one main room and two
back rooms for sleeping, and a cement enclosure off to the side with a Thai
toilet dug down into the wet red mud floor.
There’s a big barrel of water with a tap to fill it, and a pink plastic
bowl floating in it. And that’s all. We all left our shoes at the front door, so
there’s nothing to do but use the wet pair of flip flops left on the cement
step just inside.
I step outside to take a few pictures and am immediately reminded of my 'otherness'. Farangs don’t often come in to
these hard-to-access communities, so I’m a bit of an oddity. Turned heads, longer stares, leaning in close
to tell the person beside you, 'look over there'. shy smiles and they hurry
on. If I think I’m imagining it, one Gramma is somewhat less
subtle. Looking in to say hi to her pastor, she sees me and stops short. We make eye contact
and I greet her with a wai. Her hands fly to the sides of her face
and she gasps with an open mouth smile, then hurries away. I find myself hoping, inspite of myself, that she likes what I'm wearing.
We arrive at the church where folks are gathering. More colour, everyone excited, everyone smiling and talking and happy. The front of the church has been decorated with the recent harvest; pumpkins and bit root vegetables, and rice and beans and hot chili peppers. And flowers. So many flowers.
And the service begins with many, many introductions of many of the important folks who've joined them. Leaders of nearby villages, pastors of nearby churches, denominational leaders who've dropped in to pay their respects and bring an offering that is either laid down with all the other produce at the front or presented in an envelope and a handshake and a picture. Everywhere people are taking pictures.
Suradet is the speaker and is sitting up on the platform. He is introduced near to the end of the beginnings, as am I. I have to listen closely because all I pick up is the word 'missionary' in the midst of the Thai/Lahu translations back and forth. Suradet stands and wais when he's introduced, and Yupa tells me I'm to stand as well. So I do, in all my dressed up/dressed down glory, and smile and wai several times in many different directions as I know to do. Wasn't expecting any special introduction. I forget, honestly I do, how high a standing missionaries have here. So different than at home. But I'm okay with it. And I think that's all there'll be. So I settle into the service itself.
And there's music. So much music, unrehearsed and raw with giggles when they start on the wrong key, and a child of one of the singers running up in the middle of the song from time to time, and the parent gently bringing them to their side while they keep on singing, until the child is done and runs back to sit down with the rest of us. And every group has a special number. And there is dancing, which is where the jingling fringes come in.
We sing together a few times. These are mostly unknown tunes to me, but the harmonies are incredible. And then. Can I even describe this? An old hymn, likely brought by some of the first Christian missionaries, How Great Thou Art. And I can I even contain myself as we sing together with all the enthusiasm of hearts touched by such a great God, in three different languages, with harmonies that must be visiting us from heaven. There's an old word my Gramma Robinson might use for this. Rapture. I attempt to capture the rapture, and it's almost possible because we sing all four verses, and it is simply beautiful.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. When we sit down I realize my ankle is getting a bit worse. And, wait, is that a black dot on my other ankle? I try to wipe it away but this time it does indeed seem buried just under my skin. When I told God He could do whatever he wanted with this bug bite, did I expected that might extend to my other ankle!?
To help distract me, and because it's getting warmer and we've been at this for over an hour and Suradet hasn't even started his sermon yet and because I keep drinking good amounts of water, I use a little break in the ceremonies to ask to use the bathroom. Afterwards I feel a little better, because moving my ankle helps, and because the black dot on the other ankle is actually very easily removed by a sanitary wipe and wasn't at all embedded in my skin, sheesh. And it helps to get outside where there was a bit more air.
And just in time we are back in our seats because now it's Suradet's turn. He speaks in Thai and is being translated into Lahu. He greets everyone and then says something about there being a missionary here from Canada who would now like to say a few words because she can speak in Thai. There is? Oh. That would be me. And Yupa is making me stand up and pointing to the podium, so off I go.
This whole visit I've mourned the loss of what feels to me a significant amount of fluency in Thai. I've struggled mightily, and that's been frustrating and embarrassing and distracting. And humbling. So wonderfully, awfully humbling.
As I walk to the podium and am handed the mic, I just ask for grace. That's all. Nothing like what I'm about to be given.
And it comes. I greet them all ever so politely and warmly, and I let what I say come from not a head trying to translate, but a heart that was moments ago enraptured in worship with these truly inspiring human souls who worship so differently and entirely the same. And I say, and am understood, that it is such a delight for me to be here worshipping together with all of them. That everywhere in the world, where people love Jesus, we are all from the same family. And that means everyone here is my brother and sister. And I thank them for welcoming me into their family. And it comes easily and simply and honestly. There is hearty applause, and several people stop me on the way down to touch my arm and say thank you.And I sit back down and realize that exotic insect bites and cross-cultural fashion crises don't matter. I'm here for this. To be with family. It's just that simple.
Suradet's sermon is phenomenal, and I marvel again at his ever-increasing skill set as a pastor, leader, follower of Christ, communicating God's Word clearly, memorably, relevantly.
And there's a few more songs after that. Suradet and I are acknowledged again, called to the front, and given two handmade bags as gifts.
And then we eat. Everywhere. A table is brought up on the platform, chairs are cleared away so folks can eat off the floor. Outside many are gathered under a tent. We stay inside. The table is for the special guests and apparently, we are among them. Almost everything is served wrapped in banana leaves. Mostly I stick with the rice, but I think what Yupa is putting on my leaf is chicken, so I try some of that.
And there is a little girl who's pretending not to be looking at me. Every time I look up and we make eye contact, she looks away. But then shyly peeks again. I smile. I ask to take her picture. She obliges. She looks familiar if that makes any sense. It shouldn't. And then I suddenly realize. It's me. Well not me. But isn't it kind of cool when you find your two- year old doppelganger in a remove Lahu village on the other side of the world? Or maybe our Dads just took the same haircutting class. I don't know. I'll let you decide.
Oh sweetie. I wonder what adventures God has in store for you in your lifetime. Will they take you to the other side of the world where you can put aside the fussing about stupid things and let God be all and more than you ever dreamed He could be?
I hope so.
There is more talking on the way home. I have so many questions. And what I'm wearing doesn't matter, and the bug bite will be almost gone before I have to get on the plane.