“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness.” –Isaiah 52:7a
On November 26th I seriously sprained my ankle during an early-morning trail run with the rangers during this year’s FBR leadership and relief team training. It was one week before the end of the training and the beginning of the follow-on mission — a mission planned for remote IDP sites in the Toungoo District of northern Karen State, home to some of the highest mountains in the area, and roughest terrain. With a badly-sprained ankle, my feet did not seem destined to be the beautiful, good-news-bearing feet of Isaiah’s messenger; as a Good Life Club (GLC), team leader I felt the gravity of my situation and uncertainty about whether my ankle would hold up during two months of strenuous hiking.
But now it was December 24th and as we approached the village of Saw Wah Der, deep in Toungoo District, the words of Isaiah 52 came to mind. They were first a prayer of thanks, for strong feet that had simply survived the walking — and not just mine, but four others with foot injuries. God had taken what was broken and made them beautiful and strong. But as I looked at the mountains surrounding us, the words and gratitude became deeper. We had long planned to spend Christmas here, a village that had been attacked many times by the Burma Army, had gone from 1000 people to none in three years and was now back up to around 140 people. The people lived with the regular sound of gunfire and mortar fire, the constant threat of attack, amidst hills strewn with landmines and less than two hours from areas completely controlled by the Burma Army. This time of year especially, the dry season in Karen State, also tends to be “attack season” and a time of heightened anxiety. Today God wasn’t just bringing broken feet to Saw Wah Der, but the feet of people from all over Burma: FBR teams from Lahu, Pa-Oh, Karenni, Naga, and Kachin areas all walked here together, proclaiming the good news that these people, the people of Saw Wah Der, are not forgotten, are not alone in their struggle for freedom, and bringing hope of a peace borne from love and their shared struggle for freedom. There were also messages of love from friends from around the world, friends who had been inspired to give this village what they had asked for last year, the funds to pay a teacher and start a school.
|The nine young students in the Saw Wah Der school|
Now there was a teacher here, and a school building, with nine smiling, eager pupils, thanking us and those who helped.
“Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem.” Isaiah 52:8-9
Arriving in the village, the rangers began to plan for the program. Because it was Christmas we would do a program for the whole village and not only the children — however, by this time on the mission after going to many villages and IDP hide sites, we did not have enough gifts for everyone. One ranger volunteered to walk the two hours to the nearby Burma Army-controlled village to buy gifts. He left that evening, dressed as a villager, to buy a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and sweets for all the villagers. His brave feet carried him to the village, through landmines laid on the edge of the town, around Burma Army positions, to shops where purchasing things for over 100 people could easily arouse suspicion in a place where one could be arrested for no reason at all. We prayed for his safety and greeted his return with joy; every villager got a gift, a rare part of Christmas for them to experience.
“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.” Isaiah 40:3-4
Christmas morning dawned and while we waited in hope that our gift-buying ranger’s way had been made smooth, and prepared for the day’s program, another ranger medic came to invite us to visit the grave of her husband. Her husband, Mya Win, had been a ranger and his feet had carried him to the ultimate sacrifice: he had died of malaria in 2006, while helping the people under attack in this area and refusing evacuation until all were safe. After his death, his wife, P’Saw Paw, had written a letter saying she would take his place on the team. She did, and her feet had then carried her all around Karen State on missions; this was her second visit to his grave. At the site, Karen resistance soldiers guarded the trails that led to the Burma Army-controlled villages; we cleared the gravesite, erected a cross and had a service for Mya Win. He had died working to make straight the way of the Lord for his people, bringing help, hope and love, and it was with gratitude for his sacrifice and for his wife’s commitment that we sang and prayed that morning.
Later, back with the IDPS, our feet were dancing as we sang with the children. I was reminded of the Christmas story I had just read my children, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” when the Grinch expects to hear crying from the Who-villagers he has persecuted, but instead only hears singing: “Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all! He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came. Somehow or other it came just the same.” I suddenly realized that the whole month had been spent with villagers singing — singing with us in our program, singing Christmas carols through the night, a month of advent with villagers who decorated their homes with expectation of joy, and in spite of the nearby threat of evil.
As I looked around at the mountain villagers, I felt gratitude at the present we were being given. We knew the tenuous nature of existence here, knew of Burma Army attacks, atrocities committed against villagers, we had heard gunfire and mortar explosions, and experienced the threat of attack. And yet here we were, singing and dancing all the same, and the Good News brought by these mountain-dwelling feet spoke clearly that God is with us and we can live with peace and joy despite difficulties on every side. These villagers had fled their homes repeatedly in recent years and yet relied on God to provide for them and prepare a table, even in the presence of the enemy. They were giving us a living example that, in spite of all, God’s love endures.
I suddenly remembered a warning we had received the day before, to “sing quietly and not make too much noise or draw attention to our presence,” as there were four Burma Army camps very near. But as we began to celebrate, the leader who gave the warning smiled widely and said, “Never mind, it is good to be happy, it will be ok.” Our hosts joined us and sang and danced, with guitars and tambourines and full hearts. There was no shooting from the Burma Army camps. The following day was Sunday and church turned into a thanksgiving service. Rangers and villagers spontaneously took turns thanking God and each other for the joy of that Christmas.
We were all grateful – for the villagers’ endurance and courage that kept them in their homes, for the strength God granted us to travel to them, and for the love we shared in the Christmas promise of “God wih us.”
May God bless you all,
A relief team leader’s wife
Karen State, Burma
|Saw Wah Der villagers sing at Christmas service|
|Burma Army patrol nearby|
|Local and FBR medics work together where there is no clinic|
|Rangers and villagers share thanks to God and each other|
|Relief supplies on the move|
|Singing with the children during the Good Life Club program|
|Burma Army troops and bulldozer build up camps nearby|