Myanmar Reflections, Part 3 of 3: Take Off Your Shoes

Take Off Your Shoes: The Beautiful and the Not-So-Beautiful

In my entire life so far, I have never taken off my shoes in public as much as I did during our two weeks in Myanmar.

In the Bible, removing one’s shoes is a sign of respect, an indicator of a sacred encounter, a movement into a holy place. The most prominent example is found in Exodus 3, when Moses encounters a bush that is on fire, yet not burning up. The Lord called to Moses and spoke his name, and Moses replied, “Here I am.” The Lord then commanded Moses to remove the sandals from his feet, for the place on which he stood was holy ground. With his bare feet in the dirt and sand, Moses received the instructions of a lifetime, the call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into a new land of promise and freedom, and into new relationship with God.

Like the wilderness of at the foot of Mount Horeb, Myanmar is a land filled with holy places and sacred spaces. Deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, it is hard to walk a few blocks without finding a temple, pagoda, monastery, a Buddha monument, or another house of religious practice. During our two weeks in this country, we visited these many of places and before crossing the thresholds we always removed our flip-flops and stepped onto dirt, cool marble, or a wooden floor alongside other seekers, visitors, or pilgrims. At first it seemed strange or even unsafe, but soon I realized that not only was everyone else also in their bare feet, but the floors and the ground where were walked were usually very clean, because no one ever tread upon them with dirty shoes.

In addition, I soon recognized that the sensation of walking around a temple or another public place with no shoes actually made me even more fully present and aware of how special and auspicious these religious sites were. When we were walking around the market or eating at a restaurant we could keep our shoes on, but when we arrived at a place where we were asked to remove those sandals, we knew we were entering a place that was different and holy.

One of the most important places that we visited barefoot was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Completely covered in gold, this is one of the most significant places of Buddhist reverence in the country. Legend has it that this 2,500 year old monument contains relics of 4 previous Buddhas who attained Enlightenment. We arrived at Shwedagon after sunset, because we wanted to see how beautiful the gold shines in the nighttime. We left our shoes in the vans, walked barefoot across the gravel parking lot, into the lobby, and up the elevator to the walkway at the South entrance of the pagoda. We turned the corner and were met with an explosion of sights, sounds, and smells.

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

The air was warm and dense with the aroma of incense and flowers. Shwedagon towered 326 feet above our heads and at the base of the pagoda we saw row after row of smaller Buddha images with golden coverings. We slowly made our way around the circumference of the pagoda. All around us we could see people of all ages and experiences: monks walking slowly in their saffron robes, parents chasing giggling children, teenagers huddled in small groups and taking pictures, elderly men and women kneeling on the ground in front of the Buddhas. Lining the walkway shone rows of flickering candles, and behind the candles we saw families pouring cups of water over Buddha images, symbolizing their reverence and respect. As we passed a pavilion we heard a group of women chanting prayers in Pali, only to be drowned out by the deep echo of a gong and the twinkling of tiny chimes high above our heads. It was as if each of my senses had been heightened to take in as much of this experience as possible. And all the while, my bare feet padded along the cool, marble floor. Even though I am not Buddhist, I knew that something holy was happening here, for these families and the monks around me. In case I momentarily forgot, my bare feet reminded me.

The pagoda, unfortunately covered up for repairs

The pagoda was unfortunately covered up for repairs but the experience was still remarkable

As the days passed, we visited more sacred sites: a gargantuan marble Buddha measuring 37 feet tall and weighing over 600 tons; a massive reclining Buddha that was more than half the length of a football field from head to toe; the Sule Pagoda near city hall in Yangon, neighboring a mosque and a church. At each of these places we left our flip-flops at the entrance. And this was just in Yangon. During our three days in the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center, we removed our shoes to enter the building where we meditated, as well as outside of the dining hall along with the other monks and nuns.

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

Following our meditation retreat, we had a little less than a week left in the country, and we spent our remaining days in two remarkable yet distinct places: beautiful Inle Lake and the ancient city of Bagan. At each place we marveled at both places of worship and the beauty of nature. We removed our shoes at a temple on Inle Lake with four small Buddha statues that have been covered with so much gold over the years that they now resemble four round balls (seriously!). In Bagan, we left our flip-flops at the bottom of the ancient grey and white Shwe San Daw Pagoda and proceeded to climb a series of tiny, steep steps. When our toes reached the top of the pagoda, we were rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of ancient brick pagodas lining the horizon, a view that hasn’t changed much since the height of Bagan’s Pyu Empire in the 9th-13th centuries. In the days that followed, w left our shoes behind as we visited beautiful and architecturally brilliant temples, temples that were believed to be cursed and left to ruin, and pagodas shining along the bank of the Irawaddy River.

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

While it is true that our feet tread on many holy and mysterious grounds, and while I found many of these experiences to be deeply spiritual and wonder-filled, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I left out one sole-full story. (See what I did there?)

It was our second to last day in Myanmar. That morning it was raining as we drove about an hour away from Bagan to an inactive volcano called Mount Popa. To the southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug that formed from the flowing lava of Popa’s most recent eruption, around 2,500 years ago. Believed to be a place of great spiritual power, a monastery was built at the top of Taung Kalat. The summit has also been an important site for nat, or spirit, worship. It has become a popular pilgrimage site and there are 777 steps that one must climb to reach the top. So despite the fact that it was raining that day, we decided to climb it. When in Myanmar, right?

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

Our bus traveled to the foot of Taung Kalat and stopped at the bottom of the covered stairway that would take us to the summit. “Just a few things to keep in mind,” our guide told us before we exited the bus. “On your way to the top you will see some monkeys. They hang around this mountain, so just be aware. Don’t get too close to them since they will try to take your cell phone or reach into your purse. Also, just be careful as you walk that you don’t step in monkey urine or poop.” Noted.

The stairs were covered with a tin roof, but because of the rain the steps had still become wet. About a quarter of the way up we were, as usual, asked to remove our shoes, and we continued on our way. However it soon became apparent that this would be no ordinary climb.

Our guide had told us to keep a look out for monkeys. Well, there was not a monkey here and a monkey there. There were monkeys…. everywhere. Hanging from the rafters to our left and our right. Sitting in groups on the stairs watching us. Running along the top of the tin roof above our heads. Climbing down the handrails, sometimes running directly over our hands. And yes, there were cute little babies. But there were also huge, intimidating, heavyset mothers staring at me with such intensity that I purposely avoided making eye contact. We didn’t need to be told to keep a distance, because we instinctively knew that we wanted to. But they were still everywhere.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

And there weren’t a few monkey droppings here and there. There was poop…. everywhere. There was urine… everywhere. And add in the rain and the mud… it was hard to tell for sure what was what. Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t a matter of whether you would step in monkey poop, it was more a matter of how much poop were you going to step in. And just in case you forgot…may I remind you that we were all in our bare feet?

At the age of 26 years old, I have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel and experience the world, both in the United States and internationally. I have parasailed in Mexico, I have gotten lost on the streets of Rome, I have survived an attempted burglary in my apartment in Athens, I have eaten alligator in New Orleans, I have drank potent liquor for breakfast in Hungary, I have hitch-hiked for rides on the Greek islands. During this trip alone, I spent 3 days in a Buddhist monastery on silent retreat, I used toilets that were literally holes in the ground with no toilet paper in sight, and I ate some kind of meat during a meal in a poor remote village without knowing exactly what it was. In short, I have done a lot of things that were strange, out of my comfort zone, and made me a little (or very) nervous. But climbing these slippery, feces-filled steps to the top of Taung Kalat in my bare feet with monkeys staring at my every move…this was the most uncomfortable experience I can remember! Cringing with each step, I kept thinking, “The view at the top better be worth it!”

When we reached the temples at the summit, and finally got a good look at the panorama through the rain, I admit that it was a nice view. However, the thought that was the most prominent in my mind was, “But now we have to go back down!”

Remember how I started this post, describing the beauty of walking barefoot in holy places? Remember my last post about Vipassana and mindfulness, recounting the intentionality of walking meditation? …yyeeaahh. I was not very mindful as I climbed up and then back down that monkey mountain. I couldn’t wait for the experience to be over and to have the opportunity to wash off my feet and my legs and my hands… and really just my whole body for good measure.

Or, maybe you could say I was actually being super-mindful, super aware of my surroundings… “lifting, pushing, dropping into poop… lifting, pushing, dropping into poop…”

Either way, this was definitely an experience that pushed me out of my box, way out of my comfort zone. And since then, my personal challenge has become this: in my bare feet, could I still, somehow, find holiness in this adventure? All around us were Myanmar tourists and pilgrims, who were not afraid of the monkeys, who didn’t seem to mind the poop, and who traveled to the summit for a religious experience. Couldn’t I find God in this place too?

I firmly believe that God shows up in the places that we love and inhabit frequently and with familiarity, but that God also arrives in the places we least expect, where we are the most vulnerable and uncomfortable. What we are first asked to do is take off our shoes, feel our toes against the dirt (or the marble, or the wooden floor, or…whatever else happens to be on the ground), maybe get a little uncomfortable, and notice that we are in a special place, and that something holy is happening. All I know is, I will never think of the instructions, “Take off your shoes,” in the same way again.

Season of Waiting

Amidst group projects, end-of-the-semester presentations, and final papers, it can be easy, even for seminarians, to overlook the fact that one of the most important seasons of Christianity has begun. The irony of this is not lost on me: the collective anxiety that seems to build in December doesn’t leave much breathing room for us to anticipate the birth of Christ, even as ministers or future ministers.

But to be honest, I never quite knew what to make of the Advent season. The Church of the Brethren is pretty non-liturgical, which could be one reason why Advent, as the beginning of the church year, did not make a big impression in my mind. The childhood memories that I have of this season are limited to watching families light purple, pink, and white candles in church on snowy December Sundays, and anticipating small pieces of chocolate that popped out from the family calendar each day leading up to the 25th. Each winter season, I can also recall carefully unwrapping the creamy, porcelain Advent display from its place among our family Christmas decorations, and arranging it carefully with colored candles on the dining room table. Other than these few images, the season of Advent was more elusive than anything. After all, isn’t the actual day of Christmas more important than the days and weeks leading up to it?

Seganos Family Advent Centerpiece, minus the candles. You get the idea.

Seganos Family Advent Centerpiece, minus the candles. You get the idea.

However, I’ve discovered that lately I am starting to better understand and appreciate the mystery and the joy of the Advent season. (I’m sure being in seminary does have something to do with it.) The New Oxford American Dictionary defines advent as the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. For Christians, the notable person who arrives is Christ, who just so happened to enter into this world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying baby. Each year Advent is the Season of Waiting for this arrival. However, this waiting is not anxious or passive, but rather an active, expectant waiting, as we anticipate and work for the birthing of Christ into our world again. Jesus was born in a small Palestinian town to a poor family over 2000 years ago, but he continues to be born each year as we expect and prepare for the newness and the redemption that this Emmanuel (God-with-Us) brings to our broken world. The birth of Christ is for us a reminder of the creative and loving ways that God interacts with and deeply cares for humanity. Advent reminds us to expect and anticipate that God continues to be born and reborn in unexpected and surprising ways today. And we cannot be content to just sit and wait for this newness to be born, but through our acts of service and compassion, though our conversations and our daily routines, we do our part to help prepare the world for Christ’s arrival each year.

This particular Advent I can’t help but think of an important person who often gets overlooked during this season. We focus so much on our own expectant waiting for Christ’s birth that it is easy for us to forget about the very first human who ever waited for this child: Mary. What about Mary? The mother of Jesus was indeed in her own unique season of Advent as she awaited the birth of her mystery, miracle child. She watched her own body grow with both eagerness and trepidation at how her world would change once she gave birth. While I personally have not experienced pregnancy and motherhood, any of you women who have can certainly identify with this particular season of waiting and expectation! Consider too, the situation surrounding Mary’s pregnancy: the angelic visit, the assurance of God’s favor, the foretelling of this miracle baby and what he would mean for the world (Luke 1:26-38). Indeed, Mary had much to expect and wait for!

So do we forget about Mary’s Advent, the woman where it all began? For so long the Church has left women, and especially women’s bodies and spirituality, out of the picture, or in the margins of Christian life and community. But Mary is the epitome of Advent waiting. Let us, in this season of anticipation, wait with Mary for the birth of this child who will change the world in radical and redemptive ways.

One Body, Many Parts

While finding my way in this Andover Newton community, I have had the privilege and joy to listen to stories from many of my new friends and classmates. These stories have been shared both in informal conversations and by listening to each other’s sermons or class discussions. I love hearing the various and unique stories of others. What a special experience, to be invited into each other’s holy histories and lives and, through the act of listening, to become part of those stories.

Most recently, I listened to a friend preach about her theology regarding sacrificial atonement. She told us that sacrificial atonement (the idea that only through Jesus’s blood and sacrificial death on the cross can one find salvation) was never part of her understanding of the Christian story, and explained what that means for her relationship with Christ and with her faith community. I heard pieces from another friend’s journey to this place and how she first unexpectedly heard her call to ministry in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I listened as another friend shared parts of her story and her past that are challenging, and I was inspired to hear her clearly articulate what she continues to learn about herself and the Divine as a result. What all of these stories have in common is that they represent the diversity of experiences and theologies that exist both on our campus and in the wider world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

These verses have been on my mind lately. Living and studying in a new community as diverse as the one here at ANTS, the image of one body with many parts is appropriate and beautiful. At this seminary, we represent a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs that each contributes a piece to the mosaic of life in community. Some us of grew up in New England; others hail from West Virginia, or Oklahoma, or Texas, or Pennsylvania. Some come from Congregational churches; others are Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal, or Anabaptists. Some of us aren’t Christian, and represent Judaism or Unitarian Universalism. Some are pacifists; others serve in the military or as military chaplains. Some identify as male or female; others identify as neither. Some come from churches or communities that affirm our call to ministry regardless of our sexual orientation; others arrived here answering a call despite facing resistance and discrimination based on who they love. Some resonate with the Christian Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit as Holy Presence; others aren’t so sure, or don’t use that language, or don’t resonate with that understanding of the Divine at all. Some of us worship through partaking in Eucharist; others find the Holy Presence through music and song.

But despite these differences, do you know what we have in common? As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, we have the same love for each other. If one member of our community rejoices, we rejoice with them. If one member is struggling, we struggle together. The body was not made to be just one part, and we were not made to have the same experiences, theologies, opinions, and callings. Each person, on this campus but also in your congregation, at your workplace, and in your neighborhood, is a different member of the body, and each member is important and valuable as we work for the oneness of the body and the world. Unity and diversity are not opposites. Affirming our commonalities and celebrating our differences: this is one way of how, together, we create the beloved community and work for the kingdom of God.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

Week 1 in Boston is in the books. Well, I don’t know if I would say it was one for the books, because it was a little anticlimactic, to be honest. If you’ll indulge me:

I moved here two weeks before classes started, and there were many reasons why. The lease for my campus apartment started on September 1st, my parents and Jason were all available to help me move that weekend, I was finished with AmeriCorps, I wanted to get to know the area a little before classes started: all good reasons. But having good reasons for moving two weeks before it was necessary doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be a hard transition. Because it was (and still is).

After Jason and my parents said their goodbyes and drove back to Pennsylvania, my first full day completely on my own was Labor Day, a day when few shops and places in Newton Centre were open and virtually no one was around campus. Talk about quiet. True, there is nothing wrong with quiet, and I often enjoy spending time by myself (aka reading). But for an extravert who moved to a brand new place on my own, the lack of substantial human contact for the first few days was disheartening.

This week I have found comfort in the story from Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked to come to the house of Jarius, one of the synagogue rulers, to heal his small daughter who was close to death. While they are still on their way, some men from the synagogue come out to tell Jarius that his daughter has died, and there is no need to bother Jesus anymore. Ignoring the men, Jesus walks into the home and brings the child back to life, but not before assuring Jaruis, “Do not be afraid; just believe.”

Do not be afraid; just believe. That should be my mantra at the end of this challenging week, and as I look forward to another full week ahead before classes begin on September 16th. Today, Saturday, I struggle as my heart and thoughts are aching and full. I am thinking of friends and family who are dealing with various hardships, about which I can do little to nothing, and I am also rejoicing from afar as dear friends celebrate joys like weddings and birthdays. How I wish I wasn’t many hours and many more miles away from these loved ones. I struggle with guilt as I am so far removed from these important and challenging occasions and situations, while I also resist the urge for self pity, trusting that the God who holds the stars together also holds me when I feel unsure and vulnerable.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

This is not all a sob story: in the past few days I have indeed met a few folks from campus, explored a little of Newton Centre (a lot of cute restaurants, frozen yogurt shops, and an adorable locally owned bookstore that it took a lot of self discipline to walk out of without purchasing anything), and saw a few friends and family in the area, all of which have been wonderful and much needed. All the same, I thank you for your thoughts and your prayers as this transition continues to unfold and as I approach the start of the semester very soon.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

God of Inmost Thoughts, thank you for giving me a mind that continues to challenge my own complacency and clarify every uncertain feeling, as frustrating as that can be. Thank you for new adventures and especially for family and friends: new, near, far, and very far. Be here in this struggle and this place of unease. For you are in every joy, hardship, and all the sticky places in between, Amen.