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SE Asia #7 - Over the Land of the Midnight Sun - Ben Volman
January 24, 2018

By Ben Volman, Toronto Ministry Team Leader and Messianic Rabbi of Kehillat Eytz Chaim / Tree of Life Congregation

(Ben was kindly invited to travel to Thailand and speak to a group of local pastors and evangelists about a Messianic perspective of the Gospel.  And, since he will be "in the area," he'll also visit the Philippines to visit some pastors there.)

Standing in the rear galley of the aircraft carrying me over the Arctic Circle to New York from Guangzhou (an exhausting 14.5 hours), I see a fellow passenger slip open the window shade on one of the rear plane doors. A flood of light streams in—and curious, I follow suit a few minutes later.  Outside in the -48C cold (our monitors tell us that, too), I see the land of the midnight sun in glorious white.  I’m reminded of a line of poetry describing a sunny day over a sparkling frozen Alberta river valley:  “I lost a thousand diamonds in the snow.”  Endless miles of icy rifts lie below us under glorious blue skies with puffs of cloud.

So, how do I evaluate my venture following Abraham into South East Asia’s Thailand and the Philippines, places as foreign to me as the Arctic Pole?  I feel as if I’ve put my finger into two rushing streams and now must ask what I know about either of them.  Of course, I spent just enough time to get the briefest exposure to their cultures.  Chiang Mai had a much easier environment to navigate.  It’s truly become a tourist-town—and I admit that its friendly atmosphere and real Israeli restaurants made it particularly enjoyable.

By contrast, in Manila, I was pleasantly surprised to see hummus and pita on my hotel menu.  But the so-called “pita” was closer to what they call in the Caribbean “roti”—but this was thinner; a single layer of almost flavourless flatbread.  The hummus was definitely ground chickpeas, but it had only a dutiful resemblance to real hummus. I ate about a third of the plate with no pleasure. 

In Chiang Mai, being late was without excuse—it was more a habit than a question of traffic or distances. In Manila, being late was a cultivated art with all the excuses in place and, after a while, it all sounded unconvincing to an even mildly clock-watching Westerner. 

Prior to my last pick-up for the airport, I got a phone call at the time of agreed meeting. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” Forty minutes later, the car pulled up.  I was then told that with 2 ½ before my flight, I had lots of time and we should stop for a Krispy Kreme doughnut.  Forty minutes before, I might have agreed, but I’m glad we decided not to. The departure zone of the airport was, as I suspected, no different from the rest of the city.  When I got there, the line-ups were long, pushy and frustrating.  Did I mention that some were really long?  At one point, I realized I’d left my shoulder bag (with everything most valuable to a traveller in it) at one of the checkpoints.  (Sue and Jon, my wife and son, will be shaking their heads.  Losing stuff is déjà vu all over again whenever I travel alone.)

In the Philippines, the time I spent with Jonson, the Bible teacher, was certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of my presence there. Otherwise, in terms of sharing the Messianic movement to the wider community, I’m sure I only barely scratched the surface. However, I was often the first Jewish believer, or sometimes even the first Jewish person, that they had met in person and they welcomed me enthusiastically.

My Thailand experience was much more balanced with heavy times of teaching and then lots of “me-time” to relax.  The culture was definitely a challenge at first, but not an obstacle once I had developed the trust of my audience. I think Beverley was the key; she set a very professional tone from the start.  My translator, Sunny, was also a great asset since he had real Biblical training and pastoral experience. We had fun, too.  I used a violin to teach them the traditional Hebrew song Hine Ma Tov and, in time, I think we were shared a genuine, growing understanding of one another.

In Manila, I often felt like I was speaking into a culture that eluded me.  On Saturday, for the first time, I went for a walk in a Manila neighbourhood, picking up a few groceries and then I decided to try a cleanly designed restaurant.  I had the stewed beef (a little hot, but pleasantly) and mashed potatoes (half the size of the beef portion)—both excellent. A gentleman came in and said a quiet hello before sitting down nearby. We were both older “Europeans.” I was busy reading a couple of newspapers, but we struck up a conversation, and eventually, exchanged names. Peter is a retired Englishman who used to work at creating “bespoke furniture” for special projects, hotels, and those with money and taste. Now retired, he travels the globe “to see the places where I haven’t been.” He travels quite happily alone—given that his two marriages have ended.  We kept bumping into each other over the next few days and each time we compared notes on our impressions of Manila. This is a man whose global experience is certainly broader than mine, but we both agreed that we were looking at a culture that was far more complex, burdened by the injustices of the past and in much greater pain than people could talk about.

At the Sunday afternoon church meeting, many people wore a white T-shirt referring to Hebrews 12:23 in gold letters:  “Look at what we’ve got. An Unshakable Kingdom.” It was an assertion that the spiritual body they were building in the Lord gave each one a sense of personal and communal worth—a share in the Kingdom that couldn’t be lost, stolen, or taken. Which raised the question—how do people cope with such feelings of vulnerability?

The work of Pastor Joe in Tondo is remarkable and provides a meaningful impact on area youth. You can see that his young members are engaged, positive and prayerful. He sees Messianic Judaism as a meaningful avenue of spiritual freedom beyond the traditional denominations and I understand that enthusiasm.  The more I explained to Jonson, the more he seemed to absorb. Finally he said, “We need you Messianics in the church.” Exactly. We should never have been excised—a process that started as soon as the Romans turned the faith in a Jewish Messiah into a Gentile hierarchical structure that rejected “detestable Jewish practices.” 

However, the reason for Abraham blessing the nations wasn’t to make the nations like him in any other way except to walk in his footsteps toward the faithful living God of truth, grace and peace. I wanted more dialogue, but I appreciate that I was given a platform. I felt very honoured by these invitations and the way in which I was so kindly welcomed and respected. But I left South East Asia feeling there is so much more to be done.

There’s great potential for the future of our relationships and I will explore some of these questions with Filipino friends and congregants at home.  I also want to excite people about the open door we now have in Thailand, a city where Israelis are comfortable being Israelis.  Who knows what fruit may come from that connection.  Financially, we were able to leave nice gifts for both ministries and I think that they were encouraged by our desire to uphold their visions. 

Of course, I’ve been changed by this experience. I’ll never see my South East Asian neighbours the same way again.  And I don’t take for granted that people assumed I’d be back.  All these are matters of prayer, consultation and reflection. 

Please pray for my jet lag. I’m editing this in a Manhattan hotel on Wednesday morning—after having lived through two full Tuesdays and I feel like my brain is a wet rag hanging in a humid Manila breeze.

Thank you for reflecting with me, and the comments you sent after reading my blogs. I miss my family and my congregational family, too.  And, I look forward to not only seeing you and shaking your hand in a friendly gesture, but like those funny “farang”—“foreigners” as they say in Thai—perhaps we’ll hug.

Filed under: Ministry News


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