It is often said that God is a God of surprises.
Every once in a while I find myself in a situation that I could never have expected or predicted. A month or so ago, I found myself in a dugout canoe, with an outboard motor travelling along the Irrawaddy river, in a rural and remote part of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I had to pinch myself; how did I end up here?
The simple answer is that my jungle journey has its origins with the Karen congregation that meets at Uniting Church in the City (UCIC), Ross Memorial West Perth, and the movement of the Spirit.
The pastor of the Karen congregation is Rev S’Win Shwe, who trained in the Uniting Church’s theological college in Sydney (UTC). Last year, he invited me to have dinner with the president of the Pwo Karen Baptist church of Burma, Rev Mahn Benson, who was visiting Perth.
Fast forward four months and out the blue comes an invitation to speak at the 100th year anniversary service of the Pwo Karen Baptist church in Myanmar and at the opening of their renovated church in Yangon.
When I accepted the invitation, I had not realised that the 100th anniversary celebrations would be part of a four-day conference in rural Myanmar. As it turned out, the conference was in a small village on an island; hence the need for a boat to get our small group of S’Win, his wife Sandy, his daughter Camelia, Rev Craig Collas (a minister at UCIC), and myself there. To my amazement there were nearly 2 000 people at the conference. It was such a joy to meet so many wonderful Christian people.
Myanmar is a developing country and has struggled until recently under the yoke of a military dictatorship. The Karen people, a large ethnic group in Myanmar, have suffered much. Many thousands of them have found their way to United Nations refugee camps on the Thai/Myanmar border and eventually some have found a home in Australia.
It was great privilege to see the obvious enthusiasm for Christ and Christ’s mission in the world that Karen Christians have despite all their hardships. The conference was full of young people with choir and sporting competitions, biblical dramas, comedy, music, and wonderful worship. After one hundred years, God has grown a vibrant, compassionate and resilient church.
As I got back in the boat for the final time, I reflected that they were materially poor, but spiritually rich; while sometimes our problem here in Australia is that we are materially rich and spiritually poor.
As we reflect on our fortieth anniversary as a Uniting Church it is good to learn what God is doing in other churches around the world.
May we always be open to the surprises of the Spirit, and go wherever God may lead us.
Rev Steve Francis, moderator of the Uniting Church WA
To keep up-to-date with more of Steve’s reflections, visit his blog at http://unitingchurchwa.org.au/blog/category/the-moderators-blog