When people hear that I am working on a Ph.D, they inevitably want to know what it is about. Doctoral theses, by nature, are very specific and are often challenging to explain succinctly to people in a way that is both clear and understandable. But ...
When people hear that I am working on a Ph.D, they inevitably want to know what it is about. Doctoral theses, by nature, are very specific and are often challenging to explain succinctly to people in a way that is both clear and understandable.
But recently I was presented with the challenge of summing up my Ph.D research in a poster. Is that even possible?
Every year, the city of Edinburgh holds a “Doors Open Day” where historic buildings that are not normally open to the public open their doors and let people in to have a look. New College, the home of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh decided to participate this year, and the director of postgraduate studies put out the call for volunteers to produce posters of their Ph.D research to be hung up inside the New College building for visitors to look at on Doors Open Day. There weren’t too many rules for how to do the poster, except that it needed to interesting and attractive for the general public wandering through the building who might not know anything about the field we are studying.
It enjoyed looking at the various posters from other students and faculty. I was fairly happy with how my own poster turned out too so I thought I would share it here on my blog for those who are curious to know what I am spending my time working on here in Edinburgh and how it relates to my missionary work in Thailand.
I appreciate that few people actually read Ph.D theses but over time I hope to produce various articles, blogs, etc. that will give little nuggets of useful info and insight into the things that I have discovered with the hope that the fruit of my research will benefit others. This poster doesn’t include everything that will appear in my finished thesis but I hope that it serves as a taster of some of the major themes that I am looking at.
On August 4, 1851 a unique opportunity opened up for Mrs. Sarah Bradley and a couple of other missionary women in Bangkok. It was a chance that any missionary would have jumped at, but also one that needed to be managed well… which it wasn’t, as will be seen.
Despite the general neglect of women’s education in mid-nineteenth century Thailand, King Mongkut (Rama IV) invited Mrs. Mary Mattoon, Mrs. Sarah Bradley, and Mrs. Sarah Jones to teach English to his wives and other women in the royal palace. The king was a forward-looking and modern-minded monarch who was eager to gain Western knowledge from missionaries and other Westerners. Previously, missionary Jesse Caswell had been a private tutor to the king and as a result King Mongkut became quite adept in English and was eager for others in the royal household to learn English as well.
Accepting the king’s invitation, for more than a year, the three missionary women visited the palace six days per week, each woman taking two days. Teaching temporarily stopped in December 1852 after the illness and death of one of the young queens. When it recommenced in 1853, the teaching became more evangelistic than previously, due in part to the interest shown by the palace women themselves. The Mattoons’ annual report, dated Sept 30, 1854, recorded that very little had been done in English during the previous year, and the majority of instruction had been Christian content in the Thai language.
Just two days previous to the writing of this report, on Sept 28, 1854, King Mongkut summoned all the missionaries and European residents of Bangkok to question them about a scathing article about himself that had appeared in The Straits Times a couple of weeks earlier. The king was very angry about the article and felt certain that one of the missionaries was the unnamed source for the Singaporean newspaper article. Servants and employees of missionaries were arrested and then released after a brief detention, and the king very nearly ejected all the missionaries from the country. At this time the three missionary women temporarily ceased teaching, though after a few days, Mrs. Mattoon and Mrs. Smith returned to their teaching in the palace. This was short-lived however, and not many days later, no one would open the gate of the palace to let the missionary women in.
The exact reason for the termination of their teaching sessions is unclear. However, King Mongkut’s subsequent employment of a private teacher, Mrs. Anna Leonowens, to teach the palace women and children indicates a strong possibility that the king was displeased with the missionary women’s prioritization of teaching Christianity over English. In a February 26, 1862 letter inviting Anna Leonowens to come to Bangkok, the king wrote:
We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.
It is evident from the experience of the three missionary women and the subsequent terms of employment for Anna Leonowens that King Mongkut, while valuing what missionaries could offer, was only content to accept the help of foreigners if they gave the type of assistance that he desired.
King Mongkut never forbade evangelism per se. He was fully aware of the religious goals of the missionaries in his kingdom and he was happy to tolerate their evangelism, but these missionaries needed to know the appropriate time and place to share the Gospel. Missionaries were welcome in Thailand as long as they contributed to national development and modernization in ways desired by the Thai elite, and knew how to eschew proselytization in certain contexts.
The lesson that the three missionary women forgot was that if you are invited to teach English, then you need to teach English. If students are interested in hearing about Christianity, that is fine, but the missionary must use discernment to know whether that can be done with integrity during class time, or if it is better to defer it to outside of class hours. While it is important for Christians to be faithful in sharing the Gospel, it is also important to be faithful to even the secular or secondary tasks that we have agreed to. A failure to do so can both bring gospel opportunities to an untimely end, but will also reflect poorly on the character of God and the Gospel that we are verbally proclaiming.
My oldest son has asked me many times why I like dystopian movies and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. It seems weird to enjoy movies about a bleak, horrible future where life is awful and we are all living under the shadow of alien/robot overlords, or a catastrophic natural disaster, or some other extremely unpleasant state of affairs. Isn’t there enough horrible stuff in real life already that I should not enjoy watching movies about horrible stuff too? But it finally occurred to me what the attraction is, at least for me, and perhaps for others as well.
I like dystopian movies not because they are bleak and hopeless but because they are usually stories of hope and redemption in the midst of tragedy. Most dystopian movies don’t end with the world being just as horrible as when the movie began. Through the course of the movie, a bold protagonist or group of underdog survivors discover some forgotten knowledge or secret key or weapon to regain what they lost or to restart the world again with the hope of a better future. Dystopian movies are often stories of a phoenix rising from the ashes of a broken world, providing beauty and hope where there was nothing but desolation. Does that sound like any other plotline you’ve heard? To me, that sounds like the Gospel.
Is not the grand narrative of Scripture somewhat like a dystopian movie? All was perfect in the Garden of Eden and then through the stupid short-sightedness and evil of man, paradise was lost. People tried to get on the best they could but they were still hampered by their own evil and the world was bleak, despite fleeting pleasures here and there, especially for the powerful elite who squeezed the people below for their own gain. But in the midst of this dystopian world comes the promise of “the One”, an anointed One that will regain what was lost and restore this broken world. That is Jesus Christ breaking into history, conquering sin, death, and the devil, winning the key battle against all of these in the cross and resurrection. The complete redemption of the world is still future but the redemption has begun through Christ and a small band of people who have seen the Hope and the Future of what will be.
Dystopian movies don’t usually end with the world being restored again but more often they end with the metaphorical single green plant poking up through the barren, scorched earth, assuring the viewer that all will be okay eventually. Humanity’s future has been secured. That is what Christ has done. He is the green plant, the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10) that has poked up through the ashes and shown us that there is hope for the future.
Any old movie can feature alien, robots, or futuristic people dressing strangely while walking through the ruins of New York. Those things on their own are just eye candy and superficial novelties. But a dystopian movie done well is a story of hope that should remind us of the hope of Christ who is redeeming us and his world, saving us from the spiritual dystopia that passes for the world today. The world isn’t how it should be but Christ is changing all of that.
This year I am Missionary in Residence at Dallas Theological Seminary. My job is to mobilize as many of the 1000+ students on this campus for missions. As I chat with them, I want to be honest and portray the rigors of mission life in a truthful way, but at the same time I count the last 40 years of my work with the Thai through OMF a blessed privilege and as such want my students to see all the positives and benefits of missionary life. I mention this, because of an article written by Joe Holman, a missionary to Bolivia, who entitled his article, “Ten Things That Your Missionary Will Not Tell You.” There is an element of truth to what Joe says, but I feel it only confirms a negative stereotype that is in most people’s minds about life on the field. I’ve always been told that it is “easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar” and so I wanted to give a positive spin to the ten negative assertions made in Joe’s article.
1. Sometimes, most of the time, living in another culture is hard.
Yet, most would agree that living in your own culture is not that easy either. As I interact with students here at DTS, I’ve discovered that most find living in their home culture in these perilous times increasingly difficult. It is true that America is more comfortable materially than say Thailand or Bolivia, yet the challenges of living for Christ in this present secular environment are often just as daunting as any field missionary in the jungles of Bolivia.
2. It is lonely and your friends and family from the States have forgotten you.
In this age of technology and instant communication, I find that interaction with the home side is only enhanced, not diminished. I am able to call my 90 year-old mother every day and have Skype calls with supporters on a regular basis. I’m sorry that Joe has an overall feeling of abandonment by friends and family, but for me it has been just the opposite. I also reflect on Mark 10:29-30 which promises that God will give new family and friends one hundred-fold to those who leave their friends and kin for the gospel sake. True, relationships were affected when I left the States, but I gained a very close new family in OMF as well as with my Thai and tribal brethren.
3. We are normal people.
Joe rightly observes that people tend to put missionaries on a pedestal. However, that is not unique to missionaries; just ask most any pastor or church worker. People already know that Christian leaders are “normal” and confirm that estimation daily when they read the latest newsflash. Those who have read my monthly prayer newsletter over the last few years will clearly see that this missionary has “feet of clay” and is indeed an ordinary believer who is trying his best to serve an extraordinary God.
4. We never have enough money but feel guilty asking for it.
I’m not sure how Joe goes about fund raising, but this is my 40th year in OMF and due to the policies of my mission, I have never been called upon to “beg” for money. Over those 40 years I have never had an over-abundance, but God has faithfully supplied the needs of my family of 6 time and time again.
5. We feel like our children are getting shortchanged by our choice.
If you look closely enough, you will indeed find MKs who reflect negatively concerning their life on the field. Yet growing up in the States is no guarantee that children will not feel “shortchanged” by their parents’ choices. Child raising is a challenge and fraught with risks no matter what your address. There were many aspects of our children’s education that were less than ideal, but I like to feel that my children were only enriched by the rich experience of languages, cultures and Christian role models that they encountered.
6. I took a great vacation but I cannot tell anyone.
When I heard this quote I thought of the definition of a Puritan. Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Joe felt guilty when he took what many people would consider an extravagant and expensive vacation. My mission owns a bungalow right on the ocean in South Thailand. My whole family have taken some pretty awesome vacations in various places, but my kids would choose this bungalow above them all. Interesting enough, our bungalow is unusually economical and supplied us with family-style meals, a pool, library, laundry service, etc. (Interested? Read my recent blog: Taking a Sabbath at the Pines.)
7. We hate being judged by a standard that our judges do not follow.
Joe feels that many on the home side and especially mission committees are critical of his ministry results, yet they themselves are not that effective in their own ministries. Once again, I’m sorry that Joe has had that experience. However, I have had eight supporting churches over the years and none of them have been “heavy handed” in their evaluations of my effectiveness. I truly enjoy coming home because I know that I’ll get a listening ear and helpful support emotionally, by way of prayer and financially.
8. Saying good-bye stinks…and it is not the same in the States.
I was recruited by missionaries who had 7-year terms and was thankful to learn that my term would be 4 years. It did mean saying “good-bye” in those days meant extended separations. However, today 4-year terms are rare due to frequent trips back to the home side. Instant communication also lessens feelings of separation. I am finding that I can make a yearly trip back to the States without disrupting my ministry in Thailand due to an abundance of cheap flights. Not all missionaries can do this, but the situation is much better today than in times past.
9. Going to the States is hard.
I resonate with this statement in one way. After a difficult first furlough I began to plan for my second furlough and expressed my concerns to a fellow co-worker, “Mike, I’m concerned about reverse culture shock.” Mike asked, “Where are you going on furlough?” I replied, “Back to my home state of Oklahoma.” Mike grinned, “Don’t worry about it. Oklahoma doesn’t have any culture to be shocked by!” There certainly will be adjustments returning to a home culture after many years. However, our family always looked forward to all of the positives that a year at home afforded us.
10. I constantly feel like I have to prove myself to you.
To me, Paul gave the best answer to this assertion, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor. 4:3). If your ministry is lived out in front of man, you will always feel inadequate and sense a need to prove yourself. Ultimately, however, we will not give an account to man, but to God at the Bema Seat (2 Cor. 5:10). At this judgement, Christ will do a proper evaluation of our service and even our motives for ministry.
A short blog is too brief to tell you all the positive things that I have experienced on the mission field. Four decades of work with the Thai have had its fair share of challenges, but overall I count it as a special privilege to have been called to minister the gospel in Thailand - “The Land of Smiles.”
In the few Thai church history books that exist, Jacob Tomlin and Karl Gutzlaff are credited with being the first resident Protestant missionaries in Thailand. Arriving on August 23, 1828, the two men only stayed for a few years before moving on to other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, they didn’t have a lot to show for their efforts in Thailand before leaving for good in 1831 (Gutzlaff) and 1832 (Tomlin).
When they arrived, they already spoke Chinese and set to work distributing Christian books in Chinese, which attracted considerable interest from locals, especially the many Chinese residents of Bangkok, as well as opposition from Catholic priests. But they were not only concerned to share the Gospel with Chinese speakers and they set to work learning Thai. With a massive amount of help from some unsung local assistants, Gützlaff and Tomlin produced a translation of the New Testament in Thai, though the quality of their work was of dubious value and the king of Thailand said he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. They also started work on an English-Thai dictionary, and got up to the letter R. Aside from these modest literary accomplishments, Gützlaff and Tomlin’s efforts resulted in several inquirers but only one baptized convert, a Chinese man named Boon Tee (Koë Bun Tai).
If they had stayed, they might have accomplished much more. And if we look at only what they accomplished during their short stint in-country, it is questionable whether they deserve the high praise they receive in the annals of Protestant history in Thailand. But what they did do was get the ball rolling for Protestant missions in Thailand. How did they do that?
They sent some letters.
If Gutzlaff and Tomlin had sailed for other shores with brighter promise, without telling others of their experience in Thailand and the opportunities it held, it might have been many more years before long-term Protestant missionaries again sailed up the Chao Phraya river into Bangkok. But on a short trip to Singapore during their two and half year residence in Bangkok, Gützlaff and Tomlin became mission mobilizers for Thailand.
In two letters which they sent out, Gutzlaff and Tomlin relayed the great need of Thailand for the Gospel and called for more workers to be sent. One letter went to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the other went to Adoniram Judson and the American Baptist mission in Burma. These letters bore fruit in the appointment of three missionaries to work in Thailand. The ABCFM sent David Abeel to Siam in 1831 and the American Baptist Mission in Burma designated John and Eliza Jones to work in Thailand, arriving in 1833.
David Abeel stayed in Thailand for only a year but a goodly number of ABCFM missionaries followed him, including the famous and influential Dr. Dan Beach Bradley. Eliza Jones of the American Baptists picked up Gutzlaff and Tomlin’s dictionary work, moving beyond the letter R and improving what they had already done. Her husband John took up the Bible translation work and his (greatly improved) translation of the New Testament (from Greek this time, not Chinese!) was published in 1843.
Whatever their other accomplishments, it is important to remember the crucial role that Gutzlaff and Tomlin played in putting Thailand on the map of other missions. They themselves may not have been very productive in terms of disciples made or churches planted, but in God’s providence, they were the pioneers who issued the call for more workers - and God used that call to bring His servants to Thailand. A letter in the hand of God may accomplish more for the cause of the Gospel than our own hands ever will.