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Ko Thay-Byu Is Chosen 

   "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."        Jim Elliot - missionary, martyred in Ecuador in 1950's while working to reach the Auca tribe.

It is a truth of scripture that there was a great flood - a world wide flood - and only 8 persons survived: Noah, his wife, Noah’s sons (Shem, Japthet, and Ham), and their wives. This brought the number to 8 survivors, not counting the animals on the ark. It’s a truth of Jewish and Christian scripture, anyway. Yet hundreds of cultures around the world were also found to believe this was true with minor variations. Some of them believed in a world flood but believed a few more or a few less people survived than those our scriptures listed. Some thought it was a different type of boat. Many gave the Noah figure a different name. But, significantly, nearly all cultures have a legend of a sweeping destructive world wide flood that killed all but a handful of humans.

So, in about 2400 B.C. (just an estimate), there was a flood, and such a small group survived that, for a brief time in history, all living persons again knew the true God - all 8 of them, let’s say. Before that, the last time was probably Adam and Eve's second or third generation of offspring, maybe 1000 years previously. (The time before the flood consisted of about 1,650 years.) When the ark settled in the mountains of Ararat, it was a new beginning, and everyone knew the truth again.

Sadly, idolatry soon followed. A falling away from God occurred again among foolish men as our population rebounded. Polytheism and nature worship sprang up - men worshipped multiple gods, and not the true ones either. But, did there remain pockets of people that did not fall away? Were there colonies of people that retained at least part of the post-flood pure truth?

Did God have any completely true witnesses anywhere? We can’t be completely sure, but probably not. That’s just the magnitude of our disloyalty to our Father. Yet….there were traces of truth and knowledge which some small, far flung cultures hung on to as they migrated across the globe seeking a home.

Early Europeans were absolutely as bad as others when it came to false worship. And idolatry. And human sacrifice. Yet, by late Roman times Christianity had penetrated much of Europe, and by around the year 1200 A.D. Christianity was well established in Catholic form - a form with statues and co-opted pagan customs in many cases. And in a form where only the clergy held possession of scripture, and they would read it to the people. But so long as they read it to the people, and explained it rightly, the Word was alive.

Then came the printing press and then the Protestant Revolution, and it began to be, by the 1600’s, that most who wanted a Bible could find one. Believers caught the bug - the missionary bug - and modern Apostles began to go out to the near and far reaches of the globe to reach the Pagan with the Gospel of Jesus. Again the believers of Jesus were spreading the word to lost peoples. We were no longer a social club, but an outreach organization.

Yet, along with that, an unfortunate ancient truth was rediscovered: most pagans already worshipped something, and most of the time their worship was pretty deeply embedded in their political structure, and most of the time they didn’t really want to change their minds, their culture, or their religion. Those in power wanted to stay in power. Those who combined religion and politics to hold power didn’t want to see their religion discredited - it might somehow cost them their power. Some of those cultures have still not been converted today, and have in fact become pretty hardened against the message of Jesus. In other such cultures, by dint of hard unrelenting missionary effort, with only a little fruit here and there over the course of decades, some slow grudging gains have been made, leading to a small new flock for the Lord.

But in a precious few other cases, a pagan people lay waiting, enduring hardship and frustration in some far away place, aware that there once was a just and good God who shepherded their people wisely, a true God that did not do cruel things. But they believed their fathers had rebelled against Him in distant times, and now they lived without his love and favor, and life was hard and sad for their people because of this. But there would come a day, their legends told them, when He would forgive them and show them favor.

Such peoples would have a prophet among themselves, every now and again, who would share a few words of encouragement with their people from this mysterious God, about the time when the good God would come again and restore to them what they had lost. One such people like this was the Karen, of Myanmar, which was formerly called Burma.

Some of the prophetic sayings of the Karen elders and prophets went as follows: “The sons of God, the white foreigners, dressed in shining white and shining black, the white foreigners, the children of God, dressed in shining black and shining red.” This matched the British dress when they arrived.

“Children and grandchildren, if the thing come by land, weep; if the thing come by water, laugh. It will not come in our day, but it will in yours. If it come first by water, you will be able to take breath; but if first by land, you will not find a spot to dwell in.” The British and even the missionaries came by water, in ships.

“When the Karens have cleared the Hornbill City three times, happiness will arrive.” Sometimes the Burmese pressed work gangs of Karen into things like clearing out the new growth in and around a city. There was a city called the Hornbill City, which they had twice been mustered to clear the jungle growth from. They were eventually mustered to do this a third time, and during that time, war was declared with the British, who had come by water. They believed the happy ‘thing’ had come then. But what exactly was the ‘happy thing?’

Another: “The sons of God, the white foreigners, obtained the words of God. The white foreigners, the children of God, obtained the words of God anciently.”

The Karen were a mountain people that occupied regions of Burma, and some surrounding areas. They thought themselves to have most recently migrated from the area around Tibet when they were asked about it. And they were a lowly people. Even they saw themselves that way. They called themselves the lowliest of the lowly. A people forced into the mountains by the more powerful Siamese and Burmese. And even there, they were a people treated with contempt by their neighbors. Their villages would be raided. Their woman were sometimes raped or taken as prostitutes. The men were enslaved in many cases. If they were killed, no one cared. They survived by living where no one else really wanted to live, and by selling products and goods from their mountains to the more developed Buddhist peoples in the valleys.

Yet, there were many of this poor despised people, these Karens. There are over 3 million Karen today. Back in the 1820’s, it may have been more like a half million. It is hard to say. The mountain ranges were long and not well known, and there were many small villages. The Karen’s also had their own language, though they could speak the language of their more powerful neighbors as well.

With so many hardships, and so little to look forward to, it is interesting to know that there was one hope they held onto. There was a God. He once had been their God, and He was the only true God, they believed. But they had angered Him and done wrong to Him, so he had sent them wandering, abandoned. Yet, he did not hate them entirely, and he would one day return to them, and restore them to truth. One day….but they had waited a long time. They weren’t sure how long - but it was a very long time.

The Karens had another legend. A prophet of their people had told them a message from the One God: that one day men with white faces would bring a white book, and in the white book brought by the white faced men would be the truth they had sought for so very, very long.

But until that book came, they struggled and survived, and waited out the days. What religion they did practice had to do mostly with offering sacrifices to appease bad spirits so that they would leave them alone. In fact, the Karen were known to have a great dislike for idols.

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Adoniram Judson was a missionary from the United States, heralding from Malden, Massachusetts. He was raised by a minister, but like a good number of minister’s children, he hit a point in his late teens when he rebelled against the faith he had been immersed in by his parents. He declared that he was an agnostic, maybe even an atheist. He was joined in this viewpoint by another young friend - Jacob Eames.

Adoniram went to New York to try acting. This did not work out well, so he enrolled in Brown University and began seeing his parents again from time to time.

Once, on a trip home, he had to stay at a hotel, but it was nearly full. The proprietor told him that the only room available was adjacent to a man who was dying of something, and in much pain - that there might be too much noise. But it was a room, so Adoniram took it.

That night Adoniram listened to the pained cursing and blaspheming of this dying man, and felt in his soul how lost the man was. In the morning, leaving, he happened to mention it to the proprietor, who told him that the man had been found deceased early in the morning. He had slipped away during the night.

Adoniram enquired about his name. ‘Jacob Eames’ he was told. Surprised, he found that the person who died was indeed his own former friend Jacob Eames, a fellow rebeller against God. He realized that Jacob, like himself, was most likely a lost soul. He decided to rededicate himself to God.

He continued to attend Brown University, and Andover Theological Seminary. He held to his decision to dedicate himself to God, Jesus, and the Gospel, and he never wavered. And eventually he was in one of the first groups of missionaries sent out from America to foreign nations. He set out in 1811 to England, to depart from there to more distant lands.

He married first.  His wife Ann was a bright woman, friendly, well liked, and a quick study of languages. Her life with her husband Adoniram involved a great deal of losing or miscarrying children, and therefore she could have been a very sad woman, but instead she was as strong and valuable a right arm as any foreign missionary could have asked for, and she followed her husband to the difficult places he went, including, eventually, Burma. Though Adoniram was a very accomplished linguist, she was apparently as good or better.

Arriving in Burma - a member of the Baptist Church now, though he began with the Congregational - they set up in a house and began to learn the local Burmese language. For three years they struggled and learned, wishing to master the strange and difficult language before beginning to preach the Gospel. Then they began to reach out to these Buddhist Burmese, a group that other Europeans described as ’impenetrable’ to Christianity. And they were not far from right. It was not officially permissible, there in Rangoon, to preach Christianity, though they did it anyway. And it was a crime punishable by death for the Burmese to change religions from Buddhist. Adoniram and Ann were to manage 18 converts in 12 years. So, every 2 years Judson and Ann, working alone and far from any other Europeans for the most part, managed to get about 3 converts to Jesus. !8 converts in 12 years.

They couldn’t have been very encouraged. After all, Ann had lost their first baby at birth, while on a ship. Their second died before it reached 1 year old, in Burma, far, far from home. They had already paid a high price to bring this precious prize, the Gospel, to the Burmese living in and near the city of Rangoon. But they did gain 18 souls for their Lord, and that mattered.

Though they hadn’t been very convincing to the Burmese, Adoniram had accomplished some good things in these hard 12 years. He had translated the Gospel of Matthew to the Burmese language. He was working on translating the whole New Testament. And a very important thing had happened: in 1817 a man named Hough, a printer who had a press, had come to help them. He printed 800 copies of the Gospel of Matthew into the native Burmese tongue by 1823. It was the first Burmese language Bible. It would be of use to all future missionaries in Burma!! That could affect unknown thousands of souls. By late 1823 Adoniram had translated the entire New Testament into Burmese. But still, the work was slow, hard, and seemed so slowly rewarded.

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From 1824 to 1826 a war broke out between England and Burma. As a person of European descent, Adoniram was thrown into jail. Ann, pregnant with their third child, raced from government office to government office, seeking release for her imprisoned and suffering husband. She never quit. The war finally ended, and as part of the treaty, there was more freedom now to spread the Gospel. Adoniram was released, but Ann, who had spent the war as the only recorded member of the hated Anglo race at large in Burma, was worn out, and became sick. She died shortly after the birth of her 3rd child. Months later the child died too. She was a tough strong woman of God, and it almost seems that her life counted for too little, but it was her courage and faith that kept faith in Adoniram’s heart during his prison ordeal. Adoniram survived because of Ann, though she lost all and he lost most. But he continued his Burmese missionary work, and that was going to matter a great deal very shortly.

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In 1828, Adoniram was preaching in a recently opened district of Burma (Burma is now known as Myanmar, by the way) and he decided to purchase a certain man - a debt slave - from one of his few Burmese Christian converts. The man was named Ko Thah-Byu. Adoniram wished to free the man, and have him work on better terms. The man was a tough, surly, fierce tempered fellow from a mountain tribe called the Karens. He had been a robber of the worst sort, and openly admitted to have killed somewhere in excess of 30 men in his life. Even among the unsophisticated Karen he was a rough sort of man.

Adoniram began to teach Ko about Jesus, and writings survive saying that Ko was found to be a pretty slow perceiver of the Gospels light. For one thing he had a tremendously fierce temper. They actually called it a ’diabolical’ temper. This was, after all, a guy that had killed 30 men or more. It wasn’t clear that Ko would ever be reachable, but they kept teaching him, and he kept going back to the teachings. But, in fits and starts, against the odds, they began to see improvement - changes in his demeanor.

Then, there came a time when belief - a complete and total belief - seized hold of this unlikely seeming man. Ko had come to realize, somewhere along the line, that this very book he was learning from was ’the Book’. It was that thing, that teaching, that sign of forgiveness from their offended Heavenly Father, It was that Holy reaching out of the hand from the true God to his persecuted people. It was ‘the thing’ they had been hoping and praying for. It was the long awaited 'white book'.  The paper was white!  And it held the teachings of the one true God!  He, Ko Thah-Byu had somehow been appointed as the discoverer of the key to his peoples mysterious legends - the long awaited fulfillment of the prophesies of old.

Can you imagine his personal joy, in finding out first how wicked he had been during his life, and then learning that Jesus had come and covered all that sin, and that he, Ko, could be forgiven? Can you picture the pure excitement he must have felt in realizing that there was a long mountain range full of people that were dying to hear the very things that he now knew? In 1828 Ko became baptized, and he was, from that time on, a man on a mission.

Ko headed out into the mountain strongholds of the isolated and far flung Karens, most of whom he had never met, and he preached, and he preached, and he preached. He wasn’t thought by Adoniram or any other chronicler I read to be particularly suited to preaching. Over and over, it was written of Ko that he was a man of ‘very ordinary abilities’. And his temper never fully left him. But he hauled his brain full of ordinary abilities and his heart full of Christian fire through forests of tiger, rhino, and disease, over passes in good weather and bad, he forded rivers, crossed streams, followed trails unknown to him, and he never quit. Ever!! From village to village the message flew, growing wings of it’s own as the long awaited good news was spread. People came from all over to find Ko and hear the message straight from the source. People traveled for two days sometimes just to reach a village where Ko was said to be teaching.

It was once written that a European man happened to see Ko when Ko had come upon some other men - not of his own people, but locals - worshipping an idol. And Ko held back no words at all in rebuking them for their dark and misled foolishness, that they should worship an evil idol. The observer remarked that Ko had a look of something like utter naked hatred on his face when he looked towards that idol. A very frightening look. He concluded that if ever there was a man anywhere that completely detested idolatry, it was Ko.

And compared to the progress Adoniram was making among the Buddhists, Ko may as well have been throwing matches on piles of tinder concerning his preaching to the Karen. His people ‘got it‘. The message was planted in extremely fertile soil. They listened, they listened excitedly, and many believed. Adoniram never converted 100 people in 40 years of work in Burma. But one that he did show the way to was Ko Thah-Byu, and Ko showed the way to over 1200 who had actually joined the church, and many hundreds more that were on their way by the time his own 12 year ministry and his life was over. And Ko encouraged more helpers from among his own people. Some Karen first worked with Ko, traveling the mountainous land, and then became missionaries in their own right. After hearing Ko, they would often travel to a recent mission started by a man named Boardman, where they would be more specifically taught about the Christian faith, and about missionary work.

A people long prepared for the Word received it in droves, and Adoniram Judson could only look on at the work the Spirit was doing in wonder. He could never have known, in his first dozen years of sadness, loss, imprisonment, and discouragement, that these mountain people (that he had so often seen walking by him in the marketplace as he focused his attention on the Burmese) were dry human sponges aching for the very water he had brought to their nation. And if he had found them first, it is doubtful he could have forced himself to pursue the mundane work of painstakingly translating the Gospel into the language of the relatively indifferent Buddhist Burmese.

But through God’s plan and timing, both things came to pass. The slow, not so rewarding work that would, over many decades, yield much. And the wildly exciting work of carrying the words of life to a people that couldn’t have hungered for it much more than they did.

Ko Thah-Byu wore his body out with his many strenuous travels, and eventually died in great physical pain from rheumatism and eye problems in 1840 - but he was contented, he said, to receive his reward!! He had taken a wife early during his Christian years, so he had known not only heavens joys, but some of what small good this world can offer. It was not a course Ko had seemed likely to travel when he was a thief and a murderer - in fact who but God could have known how much he would be able to do.  That's certainly a lesson for us Christians, should we ever look at someone and decide that they are just too lost to be saved, or too ordinary to do amazing things. 

  As for Adoniram, he eventually took a second wife, with whom he had 4 children. But both of them, Adoniram and Ko, had spiritual children far more numerous than their natural, and both of them had served with great affect for the Kingdom of God on Earth, so far as we can tell, by the time they rested in the Earth.

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website