I’m in Yangon teaching biblical hermeneutics to sixteen MTh students, all men, at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST). Everyone I’ve met is absolutely lovely. And I have a feeling that Yangon can be lovely, too – at some other time of year. It’s monsoon season, with a typhoon nearby thrown in. I’m spending a lot of time trying to avoid rain, walking in rain, planning around rain, and/or getting wet in spite of my umbrella. I’ve been looking longingly from a distance at some of Yangon’s major tourist sites, including the iconic golden Shwedagon pagoda, which I can see out the window from MEGST. So far I haven’t found a long enough break in the rain to visit it. Instead I’m on an indoor tour of Yangon’s restaurants. One local speciality is laphet thoke, fermented tea leaf salad. Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s actually amazingly good.
Each morning I walk 5-10 minutes from my hotel to MEGST’s location in a high-rise building at a busy intersection, picking my way along the crumbling sidewalks, which of course are streaming with rain water, and through the relentless traffic. I climb five floors up a narrow dark stairway, and suddenly I find myself in MEGST’s lively main office. MEGST purchased several apartments across three floors in this building and opened them into each other to create their campus. It’s a little circuitous getting from one part to another – up some steps, down others, through one classroom into another – but I’m starting to figure it out. By the time I get to my classroom at 8:30am my students are there waiting for me.
We have three hours of class each morning. It’s hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), so we’ve been talking about how to make use of historical-cultural background material in interpreting the Bible; how to do word studies; differences in interpreting different genres in the Bible (narrative, epistles, prophesy, Revelation, etc.); the unconscious filters we each bring to our own interpretation of the Bible, and so on. Monday we talked about wisdom literature and the book of Proverbs and I enjoyed getting them to share with me some traditional proverbs from their various regions of Myanmar.
These students include pastors, youth ministers, missionaries, Bible school teachers, and Bible translators. They’re passionate about the Lord and eager to learn, but as a whole not quite at the level of academic or English ability I was expecting. MEGST faculty members tell me that most of their top students still go outside Myanmar for their MTh program (which usually comes after an MDiv degree, and is often a sort of pre-PhD). My students are the ones who did their previous studies somewhere else in Myanmar and have come to MEGST for an academic top-up.
In the next year or two MEGST will cap its annual student intake, becoming more selective so that they can more and more serve as a center for advanced theological training for Myanmar. In that sense they’re modelling themselves on the larger, more established school in South Asia that I visit each year (not named here for security reasons). A number of the MEGST faculty studied there – including the current head of MEGST’s Biblical Studies department, who was my MTh student at that other school more than ten years ago! I'm excited to be part of what God’s doing in this next phase of expansion of theological education into a much less resourced part of Asia.
Meanwhile my current students are struggling a bit to keep up with the course content, and struggling a lot to keep up with my English, nobody's first language and probably the third or fourth language for most of them. Several times each class period I say, “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘I think what she meant was…’” They laugh and then chat for a few moments in Burmese or Chin or Kachin or Karin, or who knows what else, and try to clarify anyone’s confusion, and then we move on. I’m not sure they’re learning everything I’d hoped, but I can tell that everybody’s learning something.
I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be here, helping shape this group of Christian leaders from all over Myanmar, these "faithful ones who are also qualified to teach others" (2 Tim 2:2). And I can see the strategic value of helping MEGST continue to grow into the advanced regional training center it is becoming. But I certainly couldn't do it without you. Thank you for being here with me through your unstinting support and whole-hearted encouragement!
MYANMAR EVANGELICAL GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY
My walk to work each morning. Setting out from my hotel... Trying not to get run over by traffic... Waiting to cross the big scary intersection... Arriving at MEGST's entrance and climbing the stairs to the fifth floor...
Hermeneutics class with my hardworking students