After his seminary education in the United States, Tial Thanga returned to his home country of Myanmar in the early 90’s, which at that time was under a military dictatorship. Since then, Tial has been instrumental in development of schools and churches throughout the country. In 1995, Tial started Reformed Seminary in Yangon.
Tial’s most notable featured is his good natured simplicity and the childlike curiosity he brings to his work developing the next generation of Christian leaders in Burma. I sat down with Tial in my 5th-story hotel room in Yangoon. We had just finished a week of discipleship training with some of his leaders and I wanted to hear more of his story as well as some of the unique opportunities and challenges of discipleship in a Buddhist Burmese context.
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I’ve been trying to encourage a friend of mine to start investing intentionally in the lives of others. Over the last few years, I’ve walked with him through an intense season of humbling and new growth. He’s one of the most aggressive learners I know. He’s an intense, messy, ruthlessly honest person and I think he has a lot to offer other people on the journey with Jesus.
But when I try to encourage him to disciple others, he says something like, “yeah right. Look at me! I’m worse than most people…” To which I commonly reply, “I think that’s your best qualification!”
Okay, hang on. I’m about to get a little preachy… a bit “thou”-ish. Please excuse. ☺
I know precious few who so authentically pursue God’s love while being so honest about the mess that is their lives. In other words, here’s someone who gets grace. He just doesn’t know yet what a rare gem that makes him.
I know FAR more people who excel in righteousness and stink at love. When those people run off to “serve the Lord”, I get seriously worried. In my own journey, it’s become far less about conforming my behavior or cultivating more zeal… I did that for way too long. Instead, my journey has become far more about knowing my neediness and cultivating compassion for the neediness of others.
If you’re a Christian who has “gotten clean” and grown in righteousness, but hasn’t been recently humbled and deeply shaken by God’s love in the midst of your mess… PLEASE don’t run off to the mission field or church work, even if you’re really smart and talented and all the Christians beg you to. Let’s leave that work to those beautiful rotten sinners who need God. In the mean time, we should pray that God makes us one of them. (If you need practical suggestions in how to become more aware of your sorry state, try getting married and having kids.)
But if you’re one of those honest messy people that knows God’s love and thinks you have nothing to offer, then hold on to your hat, “cause it’s about to get real.” You’ll probably find you have more to offer than you ever dreamed. That’s the upside kingdom for ya. As Jesus says, “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”
PS- If your thinking of slapping me in stocks and informing me of the biblical mandate to pursue righteousness, I’ll save you the time. I’m perfectly familiar with the various views on sanctification, the sermon on the mount, Paul’s lists of spiritual ills, etc, etc. My point isn’t that we should be more fleshy, but that we should more readily acknowledge self-righteouness as the most insidiously fleshy thing we can do according to Jesus. It’s not a nasty little habit. It’s the deadliest of those deadly sins. And we should be a little quicker to encourage and empower those who struggle daily to live up to the “standard” and know it. They’re make the best teachers of grace and we’d all do well to sit at their feet.
I had a great conversation yesterday with a pastor friend who is trying to more deeply embody a Jesus-style discipleship in his church. I asked, “when you do discipleship, how do you practice accountability in a group without creating a controlling or toxic atmosphere?” I thought his response was pretty Jesus-like: hold people accountable by being honest about what you see in their lives while always communicating that you love them and that they have a choice in how to respond. And their choices don’t impact your care for them or their intrinsic worth.
Jesus wielded authority without a “position” and without apology. People just “sensed” that there was authority to his words. He could speak very strongly to his disciples, but continued to serve and relate to them in a way that communicated their value and loved-ness. He gave them multiple opportunities to “opt out”. But he never tried to convince, control, or manipulate them. He always pushed them, always spoke the truth to them, but never withdrew his love, or confused their actions/attitudes/beliefs with their identity or their human dignity.
There’s a growing sickness in America and most of us feel it. It’s not just in the church. It’s everywhere. We don’t really know people anymore. We have thousands of acquaintances but very few friends. In the age of social media, loneliness is pandemic and we have forgotten how to see the humanity of others. We are all emotionally malnourished and underdeveloped. Our disconnection from others makes it easy for us form caricatured opinions about who they are as people from the wounded silos of our private minds. So when we speak of our politics, our faith, our opinions, or our lifestyles, we feel it deeply—we can taste it in the air—that our right to be human is on the line. So we hide away or scream our heads off, building thick walls to demonize anyone who would oppose us.
Here’s where it plays out in the American church and in discipleship: It’s very difficult for most Americans to “speak the truth” to each other without also speaking a lie: that if you are defensive or disagree with me, I can and will simply “unfriend” you. Or I will bully you into submission. The lie is “you’re not worth my energy, my care, my respect.” Disengagement is dehumanizing. Shame-based control is dehumanizing. But hard truth spoken in genuine love can be the most honoring gift we can give. It says, “I trust you to hear me. I think you’re worth the effort. I believe in you enough to risk you rejecting me for what I’m saying.”
Sadly, most of us forgot how to love. We THINK we love someone when in fact the thing we love most is our relationship with that person, and how that relationship benefits US. (Trust me, I speak from experience.) Object relations theorists posit that the infant mind can only identify something by its function. So for many of us, our underdeveloped social selves draw cartoonish caricatures of people, mistaking them for “things” identifiable only by their function.
So when someone “speaks the truth” to me or holds me accountable for something, I’m not listening for “is this person right?” But rather I’m listening for “does this person care?” And if they don’t care, then their choice to “speak the truth” will always come with a lie: that if I don’t shape up, I can never have value, can never belong, can never be loved. In that way many of the zealous “advocates for truth” coming from churches, political causes, and activist groups are in fact propagating a more insidious lie than any truth they hope to offer: it’s the lie of shame.
So here’s a few tips for that “difficult conversation” you simply must have with a friend or family member or that incendiary comment you’re dying to make on your friend’s Facebook post:
Ask yourself: do I REALLY care about this person? Do I care enough that I’m willing to feel the pain of losing them? Or do I just love the function they have in my life? Will I stick with them if they push back?
It’s okay to be wrong, to realize you’ve misread someone. We’ve all done it. Know when to apologize.
Don’t say things just to ease your mind. Believe it or not, your job isn’t to “clarify your position” or make sure people know what you think about a given topic. If your motivation is to feel better rather than to show love, then your “truth-telling” is intrinsically self-centered.
Conversation, not prosecution. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt, believing them to be reasonable people who want to hear you out (even if they’re not). Don’t prepare lengthy arguments, lists of offenses, or ultimatums against them. That stuff comes MUCH later.
Love is not an esoteric concept or philosophy. It’s a real feeling and involves real choices. If you can’t FEEL yourself in someone else’s shoes and deeply long for their wellbeing, don’t say you love them just before you slap them. That’s two-faced.
I tend to never ask for feedback (good or bad) because I’m afraid of the feedback I might get! But when someone lovingly speaks truth to me, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s healing to hear painful truth from people who love me no matter what. It makes me feel seen. It makes me feel invested-in. It makes me feel human.
I think I’ve earned my stripes as a cynical Christian. I’m the first to criticize hypocrisy, apathy, and pretense in the church. I cringe at churchy language and religious manipulation. Yet I remain a firm believer that God loves all people equally and that Jesus is the best redeemer of cultures and religions—Christianity included. When Jesus is present in the church, something beautiful happens.
I spent my first week in southern Ghana where every business, every preacher, every crooked cop seems to tout some exaggerated form of Christianity. The culture is so anemically religious you could call it, “Ghana’s bible belt.” I hated it.
But in northern Ghana, where we’ve been spending the last week, the church is leaner and stronger. In a Muslim and Traditionalist context, Christians believe that the gospel is always pushing outward. They believe that the most natural environment for Christian faith isn’t in the Christian capitals of the world, but in the animistic villages and nomadic tribes. They spend less time building church empires and more time sharing the “good news”. And in a real sense that “good news” isn’t JUST a hope in heaven. It’s clean water. It’s education. It’s love-based development.
I know that sometimes, development can be used as a switcheroo for proselytizing, and these Ghanaians DO preach Christianity. But I sense that most of them actually believe that God loves all people—Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists—the same. So they work tirelessly in the villages, though it’s often a thankless job. And just being around them preaches to me.
After meeting with our Fulani friends the other day, we went to a village where a small hole in the ground serves as their water supply.
Some years it sees them through the springtime droughts. Usually, they spend a couple months struggling to find water. A small brick reservoir built to catch the rain falling off the tin roof would see them through the dry season with clean, accessible water. It wouldn’t be expensive… a couple grand maybe. In 3 other villages, we noticed that the arrival of water projects ALSO brought small village schools—sometimes just a chalkboard under a mango tree… Suddenly I’m thinking… I could buy a new macbook. Or I could kick start a future for 40 kids.
I’m looking into the faces of these beautiful children and I’m seeing my own children—Annabel and Levi—and it ruins me. I’m thinking, “We had no right to be born in America. It was just dumb luck. These people aren’t CNN headlines, poverty statistics, or global problems. These are people. They are part of me and I’m part of them. How can I not care for them?”
The exciting thing is, the church is loving them. For all of its issues, the church… Christians are responding in love. All over Northern Ghana, we saw the church (not government) at the forefront of development. Sometimes, projects are funded by NGO’s, but it’s Ghanaian Christians providing the manpower. It’s not benefitting them or their churches. They’re doing it just because.
In church-saturated cultures, I often feel embarrassed and alarmed by the church. But in northern Ghana, I feel proud to be a Christian, because the church is presently the most effective change agent in that region. And where the gospel is pushing out to the margins, good things are happening. We were told that the general perception among traditional villages is that Christianity brings development and that’s true for a number of reasons. One is a greater connectedness to the outside world, the Christian community, and to NGO’s. Another is that Christians spend less on alcohol and witch doctors. A sense of generosity, community, and universal human brotherhood is developed. (For instance the new Christians in one village report that their faith challenges them to live at peace with their Muslim neighbors and share resources with them.) Christianity shows up as a liberating force for women. And Christians are choosing healthier lifestyles overall.
So even the flagrant proselytizing doesn’t bother me (I say this not as an evangelist, but as a Christian cynic). In fact, it excites me, because I know that 1.) It comes from a loving heart and is not manipulative, underhanded, or neo-colonial. And 2.) Conversion has brought more hope and authentic transformation than I’ve ever seen in a community. It hasn’t culturally disenfranchised them. It’s culturally invigorated, redeemed, and united them. In one village, a group of children broke out in spontaneous song and dance with big grins on their faces. Our Ghanaian friend leaned over and said, “This song is popular in the villages. It means, ‘when I die, don’t ask the soothsayer what killed me because Jesus took me away.'”
In another village, an elder told us, “everybody in the world longs for progress. We see this as progress.” THAT’S something I can get behind.
“Before all this,” the elder said, waving his weathered hands to indicate the tin-roofed shelter, the makeshift school, the large brick reservoir, “We did not even consider ourselves human beings. Now, we consider ourselves to be human beings.” The people beneath the shelter seemed bright-eyed, healthy, even joyful. Dozens of kids for whom education was previously impossible are now learning their ABC’s. A little church meets under the shelter. And the whole village has ready access to clean drinking water. The community carries a sense of dignity and communal identity that I perceive did not exist a few years ago. “Not only are you human beings,” replied Ash quietly through the translator. “You are children of God.”
So I was thinking… how does Young Leaders International, a tiny discipleship ministry focusing on a just 5 Ghanaian “coaches” bring clean water, spiritual transformation, and a communal sense of personhood to 3 villages in northern Ghana?
Here’s how I see it from an outsider’s perspective.
A few years ago, an American with a deep sense of God’s love came to Ghana to love young leaders. Not a lot of leaders. Just a few. He came without a lot of strategies and agendas, but a firm belief that love was the strongest stuff in the universe. It was a risky bet and not every leader received love. But a few did. They started visiting villages, praying for strangers in hospitals, showing practical love in their communities, and loving other young leaders.
When one coach visited a village and saw the cesspool that served as their water supply, his love made him cry. So YLI raised $12,000 and bought materials for a new water system designed by Ghanaians and built by the villagers. Then they did the same for 2 more villages. Their activity attracted other aid groups who built schools, clinics, even a playground!
The village elders believe they received God’s love in a very tangible way and they want to share that love with others. So independently, they’ve planted churches and share their water with the Fulani tribesmen in their area: nomadic Muslim cattle-herders known for banditry, murder, and trampling crops with their herds. The village of Kpenchila says the love of Christ has helped them live at peace with their Muslim neighbors. One local Imam has even asked them to plant a church in his area, seeing the good the Christians are doing.
I told one village how I learned about the Fulani in college and began to cry. God spoke to me then about His love for the Fulani and I began praying for them each day. Later I lived in a Fulani town in Guinea for a month. I knew I might see a few Fulani on this trip, but didn’t expect to see so many. Fulani settlements are interspersed between these 3 villages and I got to encourage them to keep loving the Fulani. I believe they will do just that. And if the nomadic Fulani receive God’s love, then… well I have my own ideas on that.
So that’s how love goes viral. Ash says, “I sometimes have my doubts, but one thing I’m always sure about is love.” Right.