A story I find worth recalling…
I have been spending a lot of time with Jesse, a part-time, non-traditional student (he’s 25), who spent a year in the U.S at a pilot training school. He’s been the closest thing to a peer among the Chinese people I’ve met, which is not to say I haven’t enjoyed relationships with my younger students or with the older administrators (by the way, Chairman Zhang recently destroyed me at Ping-pong, humbling me once again). But Jesse has been fun, taking me out to dinner and introducing me to some of his friends, who are noticeably more mature than many of my students. We’ve even begun to have some simple, spiritually-themed conversations.
The post title may be familiar to some. “Gotta lose it to find it” was the devotional theme of a week-long semi-local mission trip I participated in as a teenager, based on Jesus’ words about being willing to forsake old habits, values, and priorities to truly experience the full, substantial, true (and often risky) life that Jesus suggests comes with, essentially, following in his footsteps.
And this theme is brought to my attention every time I lift weights while looking in the mirror.
That is to say, the pithy but theologically rich statement was stamped on a T-shirt whose sleeves were long ago removed; it is now a workout shirt for me. (It also serves as nice motivator for me with its double meaning, not intended by Chris, the creator of the shirt: “gotta lose” that stomach flab to “find it”—“it” being a muscular six-pack. Wishful thinking, I suppose.)
But back to the point. Most of my witness to the gospel of Jesus comes in more subtle, indirect ways. For one, I attempt to treat people with the kind of respect and love with which my Inspirer would demonstrate. I also don’t hide my genuine interest in religion and spirituality in China, an interest motivated not merely as a conversation-starter for me to eventually share my opinions, but as a genuine curiosity to have my own faith experience enhanced by these other religions through discovering God’s presence and activity in them. And I love trying to translate what an MDiv means to my Chinese students when they ask about my education—no easy task.
And I often cringe at trite expressions that seem to reduce the adventure of the faith journey to an easily digestible nugget—like a church billboard in my hometown I passed several times this summer: “Got sinburn? Apply Sonblock!” Yuck. Sorry to those for whom such phrases have brought deep transformation…but…yuck. I think there are better ways to put the creativity of the body of Christ to work than through the creation of phrases about putting on your "Jesus ointment."
But here, such sayings may not be as cheesy as they would be back home. Instead, my green workout shirt provided the occasion for the most explicit proclaiming of the gospel I’ve yet had here. Jesse and I were playing basketball when he asked what the words on my shirt meant. He had asked me a couple days before if I believed in God, while we were riding on his scooter, which surprised me a bit. Most of the people I’ve met just don’t talk, nor seem to think extensively, about religion/spirituality, despite its significant place in China’s history (Granted, this is based on a small sample size and mostly 19 to 21 year olds, and a few adults).
The moment provided a neat occasion for trying to contextualize one of the keystones of Jesus’ message, trying to use words Jesse would understand with his limited English. I brought in the sayings of Confucius, as well as the prominent Eastern spiritual theme of self-denial, and emphasized Jesus’ call away from a life marked by self-preservation, consumption, and an individualism that shows little regard for others, and the simultaneous call toward following in the way of Jesus who preached and demonstrated how life was meant to be lived—a life that honors God, self, and others and is marked above all else by self-giving, active, extravagant love.
And I left it that, because I sensed this was my call for that particular moment. Jesse then shared a story about a preacher he had heard in the U.S., a man who had no legs. I think he was partly trying to connect with me, and partly trying to express what a moving experience it was for him, despite the language barrier…and partly the idea of “losing” something reminded him of this legless preacher. This led to a brief discussion about how those who’ve experienced loss and setback in life seem to be the ones most in touch with God and spirituality. It was a great moment, one I hope is replicated in various forms and with various people this year.
I guess what is trite to one may be intriguing to another.
We’re currently in the midst of the mid-autumn festival, a huge celebration here in China, not to mention the recent celebration (10/1) of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. I’m leaving for Wudang Mountains tomorrow for a few days. It’s a retreat-type area, a place famous for its association with martial arts (scenes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are filmed here) and Taoism. Should be restful and reflective.