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The road to Mandalay

May 2007 | by John Harris

The invitation came out of the blue. Addressed to the church website, it spoke of a recently formed group of churches founded on the doctrines of grace. ‘We feel we are still so young in the Reformed faith. We need more training. Please come and teach us’.

Such are the wonders of modern communications that a group of rural Burmese pastors could contact a small church in West Yorkshire! And so it was that in January I found myself on a 12 hour flight to Bangkok en route to Mandalay.

Diversity

Burma is far from a homogeneous country. One needs to appreciate this to understand anything of the political and religious situation. Waves of immigrants from all over Asia have settled the land during the centuries, and this has resulted in both cultural and ethnical diversity.

The authorities recognise at least 135 different nationalities. The dominant grouping are the Bamar (from which the name Burma comes). They are the major landholders and constitute 68% of the population of around 50 million. They hold the reigns of power and occupy the central region.

Their language is the official one and they have dictated that the country should now be called Myanmar. This reflects an ancient title but many Western governments refuse to acknowledge it, arguing that it was imposed by a non-elected government.

The minority ethnic groups inhabit states around the borders and retain their own languages and cultures, though they also speak Burmese. On the northwest border with India is Chin State. The pastors to whom I was to minister travelled from there to Mandalay in Central Burma for a week of seminars.

Religion

Burma’s official state religion is Buddhism and it is totally dominant. Around 89% of the population are Buddhist. The landscape is littered with pagodas of all shapes and sizes, many of them ornately decorated with gold leaf and gems. They stand in stark contrast to the poverty in which many people live.

The Buddha looks down enigmatically on his devotees as they bring their offerings of fruit, flowers and incense. There is irony here. At a purely human level, Buddhism has somewhat to commend it. It is peaceful and meditative. It pursues wisdom, morality and mental discipline. It is predominantly a religion of the mind and spirit.

Yet at the same time there is a proliferation of images on every hand. It is a clear demonstration of the propensity of the unregenerate human heart to worship objects. Perhaps we, who should know better, also set too much store by temporal things.

Adoniram Judson

Christianity came to Burma in 1813 with the heroic pioneer Adoniram Judson. He has left an enduring legacy – the Bible my friends use today is his original translation, completed in 1840.

I was taken to see the Judson Baptist Church in Mandalay. The notice board outside carries the bold inscription, ‘Opposing materialism, liberalism, ecumenism, formalism, worldliness’.

Sadly, my guide informed me that as far as he was aware the congregation currently worshipping there no longer held these views. And that is a measure of the great need in Burma today, where 5-7% of the population claim to be Christian.

Due to Judson’s influence most of them are Baptist, although there are also Methodists and Presbyterians. But the seminaries and mainline churches are all liberal and Arminian.

Recovering biblical faith

Despite the inroads of theological liberalism, there have been encouraging signs over recent years. A number of pastors have broken away from the mainline churches and established Reformed groups.

A Burmese student at Bryntirion, Shwekey Hoipang, sent me a list of twelve such groupings. The company I went to did not feature on this list and they were not aware of these other like-minded gatherings. This lack of communication may reflect the ethnic diversity of the country but they could be of great encouragement to one another and I urged them to make contact.

Pastor Daniel Hram Cung from Chin State studied at a liberal seminary in Yangon (Rangoon). While there he came to understand the doctrines of grace and quickly saw the grievous deficiencies of his training.

Appointed assistant pastor at a Methodist church, he struggled manfully to guide the church along biblical lines but was resisted and eventually realised he had no choice but to leave.

At great cost to himself he began an itinerant ministry based on Falam, the capital of Chin State. Coming across other pastors also concerned about the departure from biblical truth in their churches, he encouraged them to come together. Thus was born, around 2003, the Independent Evangelical Reformed Church of Myanmar.

A heart for gospel service

For these pastors, already very poor, it meant losing livings, church buildings and sometimes homes. They adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and today have around 12 churches (although no church buildings) and around 700 members.

So they are very much in their beginnings. But with a heart for the gospel and the service of Christ, they founded an orphanage and have been bold enough to send Pastor Daniel as a missionary to Mandalay. He has a little church in his home – a very modest affair that resembles nothing more than a garage from the outside.

Conscious of the vital need for instruction for himself and his fellow pastors, Daniel trawled the web looking for churches with whom he felt he could identify – and, would you believe, fastened upon Mirfield!

In fact we were not the first – he had earlier come across a South African pastor, Dereck Stone, who responded to the Macedonian call and conducted a series of seminars there in 2005. I am most grateful to Dereck for urging me to accept the invitation and being a valuable source of encouragement and advice.

The road to Mandalay

Chin State is currently a restricted area to foreigners, so the pastors had to travel to Mandalay for the conference. They are all extremely poor, so funds had to be raised to sponsor their travel and accommodation.

Even so, for many of them, it meant a two day walk from their villages and a 24 hour bus journey. Through the wonderful provision of God – and the generosity of Christian friends and churches in the UK – the money was accumulated and plans were finalised.

The very high winds in January created an initial setback and I was unable to leave Manchester until four days after the original schedule. Some frantic telephoning made it possible to reorganise somewhat, but even so it meant an original seven day programme had to be squeezed into four.

Since they insisted that I cover all the material I had promised them, I preached 13 times in four days – and that in temperatures of 25-30 degrees! But though it was exhausting, the Lord sustained me and I would not have missed the experience for anything.

No literature

I had never done anything like this before and I felt extremely nervous, but confronted with 40 smiling and eager faces I felt such joy and, with every word translated by Pastor Daniel, I ministered to one of the most appreciative audiences I have ever faced.

I took them through 1 Thessalonians in the morning sessions. A letter written to a very young church, and so vibrant and fresh, it seemed to be wonderfully appropriate for them. In the afternoons we looked at Jonah with the intention of improving preaching skills.

It took a little while for them to relax but when they did there was such a happy atmosphere. Their questions betrayed a certain naïveté and lack of background – they have almost no literature available to them and their method of preaching sometimes bore little relationship to the context of the passage. This is where we can really help them.

Christian pastors from the West are free to go into Burma and some have done so on a regular basis for a number of years. May God grant many more such opportunities and make it possible to follow in Judson’s footsteps – to turn this courteous and gentle people from their idols to the living God.

It was a wrench to leave these dear brothers but I have their smiling faces in both my camera and my memory. I saw no ‘flying fishes’ on my road to Mandalay (it is, after all, 400 miles from the sea!) but I saw the grace of God at work. Like Barnabas,
I was glad.

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