Faith Unshaken: Karen Villagers Persevere Through Attacks and Destruction
14 April 2022
Karen State, Burma
Sitting under a tarp for church with the people of Doh Thu Plaw Village, I’m frustrated by the attack that destroyed their beautiful church building and made them once again flee to a temporary tarp structure in the forest. Just days ago, the church was demolished, left in pieces, when an airstrike landed right on it.
But the gracious flexibility of these villagers reminds me that, ingrained in the Karen people, is a loose hold to physical things of this world. The people here shift footing between the permanent and temporary fluidly. ‘Displacement’ by the Burma Army has been almost as regular as the seasons for the last 70 years in these communities. They honor God by building a wooden church nicer than any bamboo home in the village and then lose it; and yet, with their eyes focused heavenward instead of on earth, there is no break in their worship: the same Sunday school, same order of service, same offering, same choir, same hymns – but in a tent instead of their decorated wooden chapel.
The message from the Karen pastor this morning is from Psalms 39, 103, and 21: “Make me to know the measure of my days. The earth is full of your steadfast love. I will hope continually and praise you even more.” The choice of attention is ours. The pastor talks about who we will follow in the new year. He shares how the year 2022 is finished and now 2023 is ours to choose who we’ll go with. Exodus 33:14-15 has Moses telling God, “If You are not with us don’t send us….” after God has said, “I will go with you and give you rest.” Matthew 28 tells us that Jesus said, “I am always with you.” His promise is sure, what is our response? The lyrics of an old Amy Grant song about our part in choosing to follow Jesus connects my mind to the message: “Deep inside you there’s a spiritual battle, the voice of darkness and the voice of light, and just by listening you’ve made the decision, because the voice you hear will win the fight.”
During the prayer, I hear a loud sound out in the field. A tree falling? A hunting shot in the distance? I’m now listening for sounds of mortars or shooting from the Burma Army camp on the hill above this village. I remember the verse that the Devil is a roaring lion… crouching at our door… seeking whom he may devour. My senses are heightened to threats to my physical safety but am I as aware of Satan’s threats to my soul? Are the temptations to sin as fearful or serious to me? Even now I hear an airplane overhead. Everyone tenses slightly, despite the resolve of the speaker who either didn’t hear or has chosen to ignore it, and we stay sitting in the service instead of evacuating to a bunker. People outside look up, trying to identify the speck of evil, but it’s very high and passing by. Not enough threat to warrant the warning bell. We relax and finish the service.
What are my choices? Anger at the Burma Army. Anger at oppression in general. Frustration at international apathy and indifference. Despair at the lives laden with anxiety and victimization. Discouragement for the chronic interruption of education. Or, I can follow the example of these Karen families, and shift footing fluidly to keep pace with their seamless discipline of worship. We just sang the hymn that says: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Where’s my focus? Living “heavenward” means leaning into the eternal. When I lean on the world for answers to the hardest questions, it breaks; it can’t support the weight of the Ultimate. Lean into the eternal and it can handle the weight of both good and evil, both our “ageless spirits [that are] like a burden of solid gold” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce), as well as the destructive yokes of sin and evil we carry. Evil seems so heavy, more than we can bear at times, but Lewis reminds us that, as it says in Hebrews 12, the eternal has more substance and, in the end, “all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable will remain” (The Great Divorce).
I have choices: Be afraid of the arbitrary airstrikes, mortars, and bullets from a human enemy, or let it more keenly remind me to be vigilant about the attacks less profound to the immediate senses but more chronically debilitating to the human spirit. Can I keep my soul’s sensitivity heightened to spiritual attack as much as I question yielding to sleep while sounds of shelling punctuate the night around me?
Three weeks later, I’m in another prayer service in a different part of Karen State. The displacement I saw at the beginning of our trip has both grown heavier on my heart and become the “norm.” Almost every Karen community we’ve passed through has relocated to the trees and riverbanks, out of their homes and villages, to escape relentless shelling and bombing. Now I find myself at a school set up similarly to the church mentioned earlier: Chemistry equations and English lessons are written on a chalkboard propped under a tree for students sitting in clean school uniforms on a tarp on the ground. They fluidly shifted their commitment to education out of their school building to a hide-site. Even the preschool Legos made the move, we saw as we watched the youngest pupils playing before class, before the agile little kindergarteners performed their choreographed dance to “Baby Shark.”
A committee of village elders shared their situation, mostly of thankfulness that, despite all they have lacked these last three months of displacement and unemployment, God has provided. “None of us have starved, we’ve miraculously been able to work together and provide for each other.” It reminded me of the parable of feeding the 5,000. The disciples asked Jesus to solve the problem and He replied that they should start with what they had. There has been very little international help for the ethnic oppression in Burma, but the people we’ve spent the last month with haven’t stopped to wait. Their faith in Jesus’ promises has given them enough for each day, including a hope and perseverance to press on toward what they can’t yet see.
I ponder again on the question of how good and evil are permitted to exist together in God’s sovereignty. We’re here in early morning church looking in the direction of the closest Burma Army camp two kilometers across misty rice fields. The answer that comes first contains both hope and destruction: freedom. God gives us all freedom and therefore oppression exists by those who reject him, but so does the opportunity to live in love and faith and hope, as we’ve been reminded by our Karen brothers and sisters. They are being shaken, but even so are holding – with gratitude! – to Jesus’ promise of abundant life, adeptly keeping the rhythm of life.
Thank you and God bless you,
Karen, family and FBR