Last Sunday, New Year’s Day, found us in Kansas visiting the U.S. side of the family. Our six-month-old baby was baptized by my father, a pastor, in a steepled, stained glass-adorned church just minutes from my parents’ home, in a city with more than four churches for every square mile, in a country where Christmas was a federal holiday and the currency states “In God We Trust.”
This Sunday we are back in Thailand, worshiping (jet lagged) in an international congregation that meets half an hour from our apartment in a school auditorium. Our church altar is placed and struck weekly like a set: an ephemeral Christian outpost among countless Buddhist temples, occasional mosques and Hindu shrines, and ubiquitous property “spirit houses.” Our church involves a number of Thai members, and we present traditional phuang malai garlands of flowers to guests, but for most Thais, participation in our worship would mean conversion.
In a sense, my family’s life abroad involves constant conversions: dollars and yen to baht, Fahrenheit to Celsius, inches to centimeters. Our collected receipts give the year by the Buddhist, Gregorian, and Japanese imperial calendars. We convert Thai time to Japanese Standard Time or U.S. Central or Eastern for relatives; we change grams of flour to cups.
One fact we can assume in these conversions is that both sides of the equation are equal. We are expressing the same moment in time, an equivalent amount of heat or weight, but in different terms. Such is not the case with religious conversion, which is supposed to be transformative and would be notated with an arrow, not an equal sign.
Religious conversion also involves mystery. I recently asked my husband if he wished to be baptized today with our daughter, because, though not raised in the church, he has worshiped with me through seven years of marriage. He has helped to light Advent candles, played euphonium at Easter and Pentecost, and prepared rice balls for World Communion Sunday. He recites the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime with our preschooler and me, which is more than many Christians do. Yet he prefers not to join the church at this moment, as like many Japanese he distinguishes between practicing and professing faith.
At the same time, though hardly a convert, I have recently begun to find new meaning in practices of my native faith. The practice of addressing God as a person, for example, once troubled me as I see God not as a Santa-like being but as a name assigned to something far more complex. I recently began to bracket this understanding, however, and to pray with a sense of someone listening to me — to compose my thoughts into good sentences that I do not save for an essay but release by voicing them, as if to a person. Then I listen for a response, which does sometimes come. Doing this is a hassle, yet the more I engage in this practice, the better life seems to go. You couldn’t pay me to stop, and I can’t tell you how I got to this point except to call it a mystery.
And this mystery has got me sensing something that feels like a reservoir of love, one that I cannot better conceptualize, as a mom, than as the love that made God give up a child. It is love that I cannot better convey to my daughters than to say “God loves you,” and to pass on stories and songs that now make sense: “Whisper a prayer in the morning, / whisper a prayer at noon. / Whisper a prayer in the evening / to keep your heart in tune.”
The longer I live abroad, the more I encounter different methods of tuning the heart. A mosque near our apartment calls people to prayer five times a day. Japan and Thailand offer rich traditions of meditation. I have been moved to contemplate the divine by shrine and temple architecture, by folk ritual, and by accomplishments of believers from Buddhist to Bahá’í. Yet faith consists of more than respect for a creed.
A pastor I knew in Oman once discussed an image of humanity as people all climbing a mountain by different paths, each representing a different religion. All religions are similar, the image suggests, and everyone approaches the summit by a valid path. The pastor took issue with this view as relativist, but I embraced it at the time, feeling it reflected respect for other faiths. I still find the image powerful.
Yet I also hear our pastor in Bangkok when he urges parents not to teach children a bit of all religions and then “let them decide.” My husband compares this approach to teaching music by starting a student on a succession of instruments, rather than helping her first learn one. She would end up with nothing. I return to the image of the mountain and realize, true, I cannot help my daughters climb by being vague about which path to choose. If we want to help them reach the top, then our job is to get them moving.
There is a path that I have been walking, which has its rough and confusing spots yet also offers breathtaking vistas. That is why last weekend, as my father baptized his second granddaughter, I gave thanks that I can carry her along this path until she can walk, and that I get to lead her sister by the hand, and that my husband supports us all even as he continues to mull over the route. And I am glad we have a church that we can drive to in Bangkok, past a mosque and some glittering Theravada Buddhist temples, slowing for crowds at the Hindu temple around the corner and watching people wai at a spirit house along the way.