Our last GLC program was as close as we could get to villages in the plains region occupied byBurma Army camps, at a military outpost about two hours walk from the plains. Most of these villages are relocation sites and the people living there were forced to move there from their mountain homes. The group was atypical for a children’s program as it was made up of a handful of adults due to the travel time and security issues. I’ve known that security was a serious issue for these villagers but I didn’t appreciate the pervasive fear until our time together. I suppose new political developments and the fact that a small FBR team was able to make a second visit this year (albeit with heavy security) made me think that the oppression was gradually lifting, but I was struck to hear how fear and the lack of freedom still permeated so much of their lives.
When we asked about the possibility of bringing our GLC program to their areas they responded “No” quite seriously. “We would not survive the repercussions of your visit. We have no freedom to travel whenever or wherever we want, or to associate with whoever we want.” In addition to ‘normal’ travel restrictions in their area, they have very recently been threatened with severe punishment if they are in any communication with the Karen National Union, the same government of the Karen people that the Thein Sein government has legitimized enough to invite to cease-fire negotiations. They had been told, “There is change now in Burma and you cannot communicate with the KNU.”
Lastly, as our program ended mid-day and I asked if some would be traveling home that afternoon, I was told that all who came had to stay until after our group left the next morning. This was so that any evidence of our time together would be gone after they arrived home, and to prevent word from slipping out during our time together that might lead to an attack in response to our presence. Apparently the Burma Army was also afraid, and ready to react at the slightest provocation.
So much fear…everywhere…still.
Yet, church leaders who met with Dave asked him to pass along the message that, especially now, these village leaders would like to be more in contact with their KNU leadership and asked if he could help facilitate this despite the threats and risks. One story Dave told of their visit to the plains was of walking at night across miles of open rice fields, crossing a Burma Army controlled highway and arriving at the banks of the Sittang River in the plains, past the relocation sites and on the western edge of the Karen State. The boldness of the Karen to push through Burma Army controlled territory just to show us their river was one of the many ways we saw courage here. They haven’t given up and their resolution seems immovable. But fear here can also be crippling, as the boldness to seize new things is crushed; the very immovableness that stands strong can also prevent moving forward. And so one opposite of fear isn’t just standing up in the face of attack — it is freedom to seize abundant life. It takes discernment to know when to move from standing strong to moving forward.
These are some of the fears of our brothers and sisters in the plains Karen villages. My fears are different — for family, friends, work … What is my response to fear? What can the FBR response be? What does God say? I was thankful for what I read in Psalm 73: “Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever…But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all Your works.” (Ps. 73:23-26, 28).
These last two months have been a time of surprisingly quick change in Burma. For over 60 years, conflict between the central government and ethnic peoples has been constant and lack of trust runs deeply and almost permanently through their relationship. Yet since the recent elections the government has begun to use words new to the dialogue and out of character, declaring a loosening of their tightly-held, malicious grip on power and making overtures toward democratic change. In response, the Shan, the Karen, and leaders from many other ethnic groups have traveled into longstanding enemy territory to discuss ceasefire agreements. We haven’t heard the specific terms of what was decided, nor do we know what has been gained or lost in the conditions. As we asked villagers their opinions we received various responses – mostly of suspicion but one that applauded it as a step towards democracy. We then heard, a few days later, that Karen soldiers had received official orders not to fire at Burma Army patrols in their area. The next day we received two messages from FBR teams on the front lines that the Burma Army had again launched attacks into Karen areas. It seemed the new words were only words. The Burma Army, the leaders of Burma, were proving that their words couldn’t be trusted, even as their actions ran true to form.
Trust has so many facets and yet is so simple — simple but not easy or quick, for it is the product of many small decisions, or actions, done consistently and with integrity over time. Trust is dearly won and easily lost. I think about the villagers and soldiers I am staying with tonight. Who have they trusted and who is violating their trust? The enemy? Their own leaders? Who is working for their best interest…at what level….and with what ability to make those decisions….with what motivations of heart? Do one’s own actions lead towards being more trusting or less? Trust relies on transparent truth — where there is no truth there will be no trust.
We are always trusting people in our lives for love that will manifest itself in different ways. Others are trusting us for the same thing. What is our response to trust or the lack of it? What is FBR’s response? What is God’s response? “Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You, which You have prepared for those who trust in You in the presence of the sons of men!” Psalm 31:19 This verse was in the devotions I read this morning. It led me to read all of Psalm 31 which is a full message about ‘political’ issues of controversy with ‘man.’
One guarantee we have in life is that things will change. This year in Burma has seen political movement on a larger scale than in many years, potentially reflecting changes in a good direction, especially in ethnic areas where FBR works. Early conversations among our teams, during the stage of ceasefire ‘rumors,’ brought about mixed feelings in different directions. The skeptical track was one of heightened alert to deception, betrayal and defense. The hopeful track considered what redefining of roles and relationships would look like. As weeks have passed it has become apparent that regardless of whether the regime is sincere in its expressed intent to reform, or whether it’s merely putting a pretty face on the same oppression, change is occurring. Leaders are talking to the SPDC, and some, e.g. the Shan, have already signed agreements. The political momentum seems to be sweeping everything before it and whether it is change for the better or not, it cannot be ignored. At the same time, change in our own organization is becoming impossible to ignore and the need to rearticulate our foundation is becoming clear. For us and our friends in Burma there is a need to define those things that are unmistakably foundational about who we are, while identifying other things that are changeable with the current events. Being strengthened by change is to be unified in distinguishing between the two.
Today, as our route crossed a Burma Army road, ‘change’ colored the whole day. Many of the Burma Army roads dissect Karen State and are used to resupply camps established by the Burma Army and from which they launch patrols and attacks on villages. They are often centers of violent conflict as villagers try to thread through Burma Army patrols just to move through their land. Our group crossings of these lines are always laden with Karen army security to clear landmines and watch for attacks before, during, and after our whole group, including villagers on both sides, crosses. Often this happens at night, without lights, to avoid being seen by Burma Army camps near the crossing points. There are certain days of the week identified as ‘road crossing days’ so people can plan their travel around the scheduled security. Several of our friends have lost loved ones who crossed without protection and met Burma Army soldiers who harassed and then killed them.
On this morning, as our column moved quickly and silently to cross this contested area, we were stopped by our front security and told to sit and wait. The first soldiers had unexpectedly met Burma Army soldiers on the road who fired one shot in warning. We heard a dog barking and then, surprisingly, we heard shouting back and forth between the Burma Army soldiers and our Karen security. Amazing – an unprecedented conversation! Everyone was still….everyone was listening. Mostly everyone was expecting firing to begin but instead the Burma Army soldiers were yelling out to the Karen soldiers they couldn’t see, but knew were armed in the bushes along the road, “We’re not going to shoot. Don’t shoot! We’ve been ordered not to shoot. You can come out.” One brave Karen soldier defied the long history of mistrust and did step out to talk to the Burma Army soldier. They agreed on our group crossing safely, shook hands, and the Burma Army continued on to their camp. For the first time in our experience a road crossing had been verbally negotiated in a face-to-face meeting.
Here was a change we not only witnessed but were affected by as well. As we left that area, one of our ethnic team leaders, Doh Say, told me again about signs of the times I hadn’t recognized. “Do you remember seeing the empty rice fields about one kilometer before we reached the road? They were black and charred from burning. That is the first step in preparing them for use.”
I asked, “Is it safe for the villagers to start planting there?”
He said, “Not yet…. but they do that first step as a test. They are just testing the situation.”
Change can be like dark water — hard to tell how deep it is, hard to tell how fast it will go, hard to tell what lies beneath. It requires eyes wide open and a solid boat to navigate these waters — not getting swept over falls and not getting stuck on sandbars. We should know what our destination is or we will simply ride the current, an aimless piece of flotsam.
Change is inevitable — for all of us in any area of our lives. It has momentum and frequently we are swept along without really having desired it. Then, there are times we desire change but can’t enact or affect it the way we want. What is our response to change, personally? What is FBR’s response to change? What is God’s response?
John 15:4 says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Yesterday, as our trail wound through a deserted area of tall grass and weeds, Doh Say pointed out that it used to be inhabited by 60 houses. I looked again, as it was hard to imagine in the current overgrown state. What I was being told was that it used to provide a full and rich life for many people, but what I saw was a picture of abandonment and desolation. Disheartening — and all the more so because this was at least the third time in our two months that Doh Say had told me the exact same thing in different places. The first time was in December as our team passed by rice fields within mortar range of a Burma Army camp. The second time was as we walked through a two-km stretch on either side of a Burma Army road. This last section was in a river valley with easy access from Burma Army camps in the plains. All these areas had been abandoned, not because they weren’t fertile, but because they weren’t safe. The nearby presence of the Burma Army forced the farmers to sacrifice the long-term maintenance of their land as well as immediate food supply by pushing them into the mountains where the farming is low-yield slash-and-burn, with long-term consequences of deforestation and soil erosion. How much more would families be able to produce and eat if oppression was really removed? No one is farming these areas — not even the Burma Army who casts the shadow; they are desolate and abandoned, yet the richness God put in the soil is still there. This desolation is a choice and a consequence. The land itself is not desolate and is full of potential — it is waiting for something — for someone to take courage, for someone to have mercy, for someone to take action. Desolation is not of God, it is not eternal.
What is my response to desolation in myself and others? What is FBR’s response to the desolation we witness? What is God’s response? The times I have felt desolate, empty, and abandoned are probably the worst I have known. In high school a friend wrote out this verse for me and I’ve always been thankful for the translation she had that I’ve rarely seen since: “I will not leave you desolate, I will come to you.” (John 14:18) Jesus’ words go right to that deep place saying that what I feel is overcome by who He is.
One of the most beautiful sights on our walks in Burma are the clear, clean, glassy streams and rivers we walk by and cross over, we bathe in and camp by, that we use for cooking and drinking and fishing. When we are walking beside them the clarity is both fascinating and beautiful. But when crossing over or wading through these waters, it is of vital practical importance. We can see rocks of various sizes, shapes, stability, and surfaces (read ‘slipperyness’) — both interesting and useful in terms of which one is going to flip you into an unplanned bath or help you along your way. Being able to see – and read – the bottom mud is another gift of clarity. Looking down we can differentiate between the kind of mud that will trap a foot, a leg, or swallow you up to your waist. Mud mixed with sand is better for bathing, but even so, stepping into it can change an inviting bathing pool into a cloud of debris in an instant. With extreme clarity, depth can be deceiving. Finding the right place to submerge can be a challenge when there is an illusion of depth because of clarity.
Yesterday I crossed a bridge and looked down into the still, clear water to see an entire tree submerged, leaves and all. At first I was struck by its beauty, but then was reminded (as I continued on the bamboo bridge) that losing my balance and falling in right there would be a challenge to recover from with a heavy backpack. The clarity of these rivers is beautiful but also necessary for navigating through them. In our lives there is so much to see and comprehend and good vision — clarity – is the difference between a solid step and a painful plunge. On a deeper level it is more of an ‘ascertaining’ or discerning – discerning what we’re seeing and knowing beyond what our eyes see. This is my prayer: I want to have the vision that fills up on beauty as well as knows how to navigate through it.
Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.”
Courage surprised me as the ‘missing piece’ on a day I felt ground slip out from beneath me. It was at a Good Life Club (GLC) program, put together in a less than ideal situation of a remote location with little support. We wanted to give encouragement and hope to children in the vulnerable plains region but, because of the threat of repercussions on the villagers from the Burma Army, could only come as far as a small Karen army outpost about four hours from the villagers’ homes. It was the best we could do and the villagers themselves asked us to not come any closer. Our GLC singing and drama team was a small group of Rangers and a group of young adults who were representing their township for a month-long internship to build relationships in remote villages — we had first met them at the beginning of the mission, given them a one-day training and then begun the mission. Every subsequent program was more training, and their levels of enthusiasm and participation varied.
On this particular day, several programs into our trip, the challenges started to strike at my enthusiasm. The audience was only a handful of adults instead of children, this new team had been slow to take leadership of the program and they were now late for the afternoon session. Only a couple Rangers directly leading GLC came and I wished for more support from the FBR teams. Between the absence of children and the absence of a team my insecurity grew and the enemy of confidence took full advantage of my weak heart to feed me discouraging lies: “Your new team is not motivated to do their jobs. The villagers are not motivated to be here, the Rangers are not motivated to support this program.”
By the afternoon I felt the ‘good’ in Good Life Club was dissolving away and the ground underneath me was open space — no foothold and nothing sure to stand on. If the villagers didn’t want it, and the team didn’t care, why was I here? Thankfully, God gives us names for things, and after one of our team asked how I was feeling, I was able to articulate the root of it all — discouragement. I thought about it. If I am dis-couraged, I must have lost ‘courage’ somewhere. Courage is the strength that holds onto faith, that continues to believe in what we cannot see (in the face of what we can see) and to put hope in all that God has given prior to a crisis and regardless of what seems to be happening. Sometimes courage is simply survival, simply clinging to the vision God has given us to steward in both joys and trials. GLC is awesome on a great day: hundreds of kids, a full and vibrant team, busy clinic and happy families milling around, colorful balloons, full lunch, and great gifts for everyone. On a sparse day with very few children, a handful of adults, scattered team and few supplies to offer, is God doing the same thing? Courage is to act passionately out of faith that God continues to be bigger than what we see, hear and feel around us.
As I thought about it later I realized God was doing a full thing even as I was in my black cloud. The team of young leaders who joined us to become the GLC team all came from the plains area that we had not been able to visit. Only on the last day were we able to visit one-on-one with their group, 50 people, and learn that God had been working out a different way for us to reach those families in an inaccessible area. Instead of giving a one-time program to a group of children, we sent the concept, planning, and production to seven different villages through this leadership team. I pray that God will abundantly multiply what He has begun in them, and in my own courage for both what I can and cannot see.
What have been our most recent moments of discouragement? What was our response? What is FBR’s response to discouragement? What is God’s response?
Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord you God is with you wherever you go.”