It was my privilege recently to visit the Lua people in northern Thailand. The land is steep and mountainous. In the wet season it rains heavily most days. The vistas are spectacular but the people are poor.
The Lua, who live on both sides of the Thai/Lao border, have long been itinerant, partly because of their belief in local spirits. Each village has a shaman, or spirit doctor, who mediates between the spirit world and the world of the living. A whole village would shift because of an evil spirit, particularly when someone died. There must be no contact between the living and the dead.
The Lua live in small houses, propped precariously on stilts because the land is so steep. Their homes look as though they could be abandoned in just a couple of hours. A number are in fact empty, as many Lua have moved to Bangkok in search of work.
With the Thai Lutheran church leader, Bishop Amnuay, who was previously the local pastor, we visited several homes. One was that of a former local shaman, who became a Christian when he saw the love of Jesus contrasted to the loveless animism he had been practising. He and his wife told of the fear they used to have in the night, when evil spirits would invade their home. Now that he is a Christian, those spirits have gone. He and his family sleep unafraid through the night.
In another home we met Oo, a 90-year-old woman who 10 years ago was the first person in her village to believe in Jesus. Since then she has suffered. Several members of her family have died, seemingly as punishment for her faith.
Fear was a constant theme and the release from fear that Jesus brings. With few possessions, vulnerable and exposed to the primal elements of nature, these people knew a deep, visceral fear – an ancient terror when the forces of evil are unleashed in the world. Such fear sits deep in the gut, in the psyche, in the innermost being. Fear had steadily devoured them, they were not truly alive, until Jesus met them and set them free.
You and I might think that their new-found faith is just a simple faith, but not so. It’s quite profound. It’s deeper than the human thoughts, spoken words and logical arguments for faith that we often turn to. Faith lives in their innermost being, raw and unedited. It connects them with the Creator God who overcomes all evil. It is hard to put into words. It’s just who they are. The Spirit has made them into new people, the image of Christ.
I didn’t speak their language, but faith simply glowed within them. I wondered what gifts they might bring to us, if they could. What would they say about our reliance on material goods and prosperity? How would they respond to our many, many words about correct doctrine and practice? How relevant to them would those things be on which we spend so much time and effort? What undisclosed fears would they see us covering over, fears that for them faith has already confronted and dealt with?
On that visit I saw the living God at work, creating saving faith in these people. While to the world they might look poor and underprivileged, in him they are truly rich beyond measure.