Tis The Season
It’s that time of year again for warm, fuzzy, stories about giving & receiving. I’m not sure how the following narrative fits into that mold, or how it figures as a teaching blog, but we’ll cross that Rubicon when we come to it . . .
I first came to Bangkok, Thailand, as a volunteer missionary back in 1974. My job, quite simply, was to go door to door with my companion and offer to explain the Christian Gospel to anyone interested in listening. The Thais, then as now, were unfailingly gracious and always invited us in for a chat – and often for dinner as well! The only time I ever had a door slammed in my face was when I found a farang at home.
This was not a paid position. I had worked for nearly three years prior to coming to Thailand to save up the funds to support myself for a two year period. So I was on a tight budget. I was assigned to travel all over Thailand, and found it to be a grand experience. I spent a lot of time in Bangkok, on foot, on bike, and on the bus. The only one with a car in our church was the mission president.
To me, Bangkok was a city of splendor and squalor. I marveled at the glistening Buddhist temples and royal palaces, and was deeply disturbed by the groveling, misshapen beggars I saw along the streets and klongs. There was no set policy regarding how we should handle the supplications of these mendicants – we were to let our conscience be our guide. But, of course, steeped in the Christian scriptures as we were, it was hard to turn away anyone asking for bread. Sometimes I simply hardened my heart, remembering the stories I’d heard from Thai friends that begging was a big racket, that it was all an act and that the so-called beggars made a comfortable living from the gullibility of farangs such as myself. Other times, I emptied all the baht out of my pockets for these unfortunates. Those of you who remember your Sunday School lessons may recall Saint Peter’s famous words: “Silver and gold have I none . . .” I did not feel I had sufficient faith to effect any sudden cures, but my heart went out to these unfortunate, possibly exploited, possibly fraudulent, street people.
At the beginning of one December I went to the Chase Chemical Bank in Bangkok with my companion to draw out my month’s rent and living expenses. On our way back home we passed a terrible cripple, laid on a mat in the middle of a hot, filthy soi. He had running sores everywhere and his limbs were contorted like pretzels. He drooled constantly. Waves of pity, anger, bewilderment, washed over me; impulsively I placed my entire month’s allowance in his shabby tin bowl. My companion looked at me askance as we continued to walk silently back to our apartment.
What was I expecting? To this day, I still wonder.
The hard, unforgiving reality was that I had lost my part of the rent payment and hadn’t a single baht with which to buy food or pay bus fare for the month. My companion, needless to say, was not pleased. I decided to go see our mission president and tell him the story – hoping, I think, for a pat on the back for my wonderful generosity, and a magic wand to wave and restore my funds, perhaps tenfold!
It was not a pleasant interview.
My mission president, who had made even greater sacrifices than I had in order to preside over, guide and protect a group of idealistic young men and women, read me the riot act. I had acted irresponsibly and now expected someone else to pull my chestnuts out of the fire. Did I wish to be a burden on my companion and others who would now have to make up for my deficit? I had committed a serious offense and needed to repent of my hasty, selfish action. For it was selfish, I finally understood, and proud, to tempt God into performing some sort of financial hocus-pocus on my behalf.
Luckily, there were some emergency funds set aside by the church in Thailand, so I was allowed to continue on with my missionary labors. But it was a very lean Christmas for me that year.
It’s a hard world, dammit. Our best intentions are misunderstood, even by ourselves, and the little good we can ever do is heavily outweighed by the mistakes and illusions we foist on others. But our obligation as human beings is to keep on trying to do what is right. That, in part, is my holiday message to you fine readers.
But there’s a bit more. I firmly believe there is a Mercy that covers our mistakes and a Providence that watches over every fool like me (and you) during our stumbles in this life. Not only during the Holidays but every single day of our mortal existence.
Oh, and don’t forget to make copies of your lesson plans.