by Linda McMillan
The thing is, more than ever, to carry on.
The city of Yangon is divided into four districts and 33 townships. My friends in Shanghai sometimes make fun of me because during the winter break, while they are sunning themselves on the beach in Goa, I am more likely to be vacationing in a Yangon township called Mayangon. It is not one of the more glamorous townships. I briefly lived in Mayangon when I first moved to Yangon in 2012. There was a cheap hotel there called Decent Hotel – don’t let the name fool you – and I camped out there for several months until I could locate a flat for myself. Housing was hard to come by in those days, just a few years ago. Most of the people in Mayangon are named U Zaw, or Aungnaine, or Daw Khine Lay or some such Burman-type name. McMillan is not very common. It’s just too much, in fact. What a strange sound it makes when it falls on Burman ears. So, to make it easier, people in Mayangon started calling me M. C. Millan. I know. It sounds like a rapper name. But, when I walked into my guest house yesterday I was greeted with “Mingararba, Daw M. C. Millan.” It works for them, and I don’t complain.
I have another nickname in Yangon, though. In another township, Mingala Taungnyunt, they call me the American Rohingya. It started out as a joke, then people kept doing it. It appears that I am fated to be increasingly involved with these people and so over the course of a couple of years the name has stuck. A few weeks ago I got an email from someone who had visited Mingala Taungnyunt and she said, “Do you know what they call you?… American Rohingya.” It’s my name now. I am not complaining, but it is a much more difficult name to bear.
Americans – whatever you may think about the current situation – are among the most envied and privileged people around. Often I’ll be in a group of mixed foreigners: Germans, Swiss, French… and when local people hear that I am from the USA they say, “Oh, America… Very Good” I often wonder how the others feel about that, but we don’t talk about it. It is understood that being from the USA comes with baggage, some of it very attractive.
Rohingya, on the other hand, are the most persecuted people on the planet. The most recent United Nations report on conditions for Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State says that it is likely that crimes against humanity have been committed. People’s limbs have been removed, rape is common, children murdered while their mothers watch, and the men… the men are all gone. But where? Dig around in the dirt of Araken State and I suspect you’ll find the men. I have toned it down for you. But, you can read the report online.
And these two names: American Rohingya are mine. I struggle with what it means to be among the most privileged and yet also be in solidarity with the most persecuted. I can tell you that my response to the largely imaginary challenge of being both American and Rohingya has not been nearly as joyful or faithful as the actual Rohingya I know. Where I question God, they simply remain faithful to the daily cycle of prayers. I wonder about the goodness of God, but they do not doubt the goodness of Allah. They save up to go on hajj. They hope for something better for their children. It has become a phrase we toss about insouciantly, but it’s deeply true of the Rohingya: They keep calm and carry on.
Me? I am learning.
In case you were wondering, this does have something to do with the lectionary readings for this week. I promise.
In today’s reading Jesus is transfigured. In typical literary fashion Jesus went up a mountain – probably Mt. Tabor – to pray. In literary terms this put him closer to God. He took some of the men disciples with him, and his appearance completely changed. He went from being a regular guy to glowing like the Sun and wearing dazzling white clothes. If all that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah came down to talk with him. On top of that they were overshadowed by a cloud, just like Mary had been overshadowed when she conceived Jesus, and later, in Acts, people will hope that the shadow of Peter will overshadow them so that they might be healed. There is the implication that the holy spirit is active in these overpowerings. And clouds mean something too. In the Tanah clouds symbolize the presence of God dwelling with his people. In the transfiguration God is showing that he dwells in Jesus. If indeed this incident took place during the festival of Sukkot, as indicated by Peter’s helpful suggestion that they should build a sukkah for each of the spiritual giants on the mountain that day, then the theme of God dwelling with his people is very real to us in this story. By any measure, there’s a lot of real spiritual stuff going on!
We will think about all that spiritual stuff this morning in our churches. We will hear sermons, sing songs, and pray prayers about revealed glory on holy mountains in the hope that we too may be changed from glory to glory… it’s all so glorious, isn’t it? It is! No doubt about it.
But before the week is out we will have left the mountain, trudged back down into reality and we will be confronted not with glory but with ashes. That’s right. The season of light, Epiphany, is over. There will be no more alleluias, no more glory. Lent is about to overshadow us.
There is only one way to live with the tension of being both a transfigured people and a people of ashes, and that is to believe thoroughly in the dwelling of God with us all the time. It is easy enough to know that God dwells with us on the mountain top, harder to believe when the light has gone out and the alleluias have been hidden.
During the dark times it is easy to start wondering about God, to question God’s goodness, to wonder if God is with us at all. If in our journey down the mountain and towards Jerusalem you find yourself trapped in a web of darkness and doubt, do like the Rohingya – and I say this without a shred of snark – Keep calm and carry on. We all have doubts and darkness has overshadowed even the holiest saints. The thing is, more than ever, to carry on.
Linda McMillan enjoys having dinner with friends in Mingala Taungnyunt, where the men take turns holding babies while the women eat.
If you want additional information about the Rohingya contact me at Ldm.ldmcmillan at gmail.com. Also, press kits will be available in July and I can put your names on a wait list for that.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Luke 1:35… And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore, also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Acts 5:15… Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.
Exodus 13:21… And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night… (There are other examples. This is just one.)
Col 1:19… In Him, indeed, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
Col 2:9… In Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily