"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So much to say, so much to say

The weather has turned cold turn of late. We recently had a spectacular thunderstorm in the middle of night that sounded like a series of bombs going off overhead—my initial half-awake, irrational assumption. I eventually concluded it was a storm, not an invasion of my apartment. Anyway, such storms precede cool weather here, so hot days and air conditioning have been replaced with chilly days and heaters. And mittens.

This week marks the one-quarter mark of my contract in China. I think what I feel is something like urgency—25% of the year is past…will all my hopes come to fruition? As a person cursed—or blessed (or both?)—with high expectations and hopes, I often face this challenge or “mini-crisis.” On the one hand, the more I expect out of life, the more intentional I will be in my lifestyle and choices. On the other hand, maybe the more grandiose my hopes, the more likely I am to miss the simple, precious moments there for enjoyment every day. It’s a tension to be held. But as a friend recently observed, "(you are) enjoying life’s everyday moments as though they were profound...(and) in reality, they are.” So, maybe I'm doing okay.

I do want to live life as though it were epic and profound—because I believe it is—as long as I'm able to glimpse those epic and profound qualities and moments when they are present (and perhaps subtle). Actually, this connects with my beliefs on purpose. I believe the Christian message should not focus only on salvation, but on opening our eyes and the eyes of others to the goodness of creation: to become increasingly aware of the presence of God in all things, to train my mind and heart to increasing sensitivity to the ways God’s beauty, truth, and goodness are to be found everywhere—whether in the simple kindness of a stranger, the complexities and intricacies of life at the molecular level, the taste of my favorite dish, the wonder of color and light, the miracle of consciousness, or the wonder of God become human.

My assumption in coming to China was never that I was bringing God to China but, rather, that I was coming to discover God in China. I believe in seeking out and celebrating God’s presence in the lives of others—a commitment that lends itself toward reconciliation and peace more than the assumption that God is only to be found in us and our own religious life. It is easy and natural to assume “we’re right and they’re wrong, they need what I have, I possess truth while they do not,” etc. But I think the better approach demands we look for God in others, to approach all people and contexts with a readiness to encounter God.

I recall the Westminster Catechism and its exhortation to the Church to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Enjoying God—perhaps done not simply through repeatedly thanking God for saving us and loving us even though we haven’t prayed in a while or lost our temper that one time or whatever. Important things to be grateful for, no doubt. But I’m challenged to think that maybe "enjoying God" means more than just being directed inward to a place of gratitude to what I feel God has done for me personally and, instead, thrust outward into the lives of other people and the life of the world, eager to discover God and God’s craftsmanship and activity all around me. Enjoying God and “glorifying him” might mean broadening our assumptions about where God is to be found, and becoming ever more attentive to the simple moments and encounters of daily life. I do believe we live in a “fallen” world, but not an “obliterated” one.

I suppose this is the theology behind how I am trying to live here in China and what being an ambassador of Christ means to me. I think the most obvious way this can be done is through affirming the worth of others. There is certainly no better model than Jesus himself, who not only made people aware of their need for salvation, but also operated within this “creation paradigm” by opening the eyes of everyone to the worth of the lowliest in society. Jesus pointed out not only our fallenness but our sacredness, not only the ugliness of the created world but its beauty. Similarly, I hope in my teaching and interactions with students that they might sense God’s affirmation and love.

I try to seize the opportunities as they arise. I think of sitting with Grace, Christina, and Anna at dinner recently. They told me I’m "friendly and caring" as a teacher and that they "really appreciate me." I thanked them for their kind words, but redirected their focus. I explained to Grace the meaning of her name, and suggested that whatever goodness they experience from me is not because I’ve made myself into a man of high character, but because God’s grace has captured, transformed, and inspired me. I believe in grace, have experienced it, and seek to replicate it for others. I had to simplify and repeat this a few times, but they got it.

A great thing about our role here is that students generally agree that the foreign teachers are more friendly and caring than their Chinese teachers. This is not meant to be a knock on the Chinese, but a commentary on the warmth and care our students feel from us and our different “style." So…the students here already think highly of us; I imagine the more they understand the faith that informs our lives, the more likely they will sense and discover the power and significance of devotion to the way of Christ.

It’s also surprising how often I am able to share my faith when I’m with students. To all the skeptical, there really is a way to respectfully evangelize. :) And I’m using the word “evangelize” in the way I understand its original meaning—not simply as “proselytizing” but as sharing what we believe to be good news about who Jesus is and what difference it makes that Jesus is who he is. When I get asked about my master’s degree, or why I’m in China, I don’t really sugarcoat my answer. I tell people: “a Master of Divinity—essentially a degree in religion, Christian spirituality, culture, leadership, and spiritual formation.” As for why I’m here: “to discover and learn about your culture, values, spirituality, perspective on all facets of life…and to dialogue with you…because I believe that we both have something to offer one another.” Often times, this piques some interest. Other times, another student chimes in, “what do you think of Chinese food?” Eh…what can you do? :)

These moments arise occasionally, and I do my best to testify to the Truth as I believe and understand it. Just today a conversation about American history led to my crediting followers of Christ (Quakers) with combating slavery pre-Civil War, because they had a Jesus-inspired view of the worth of individuals. I also got into a conversation today with students about what “we want out of life.” I heard “money” and “respect from others” often. One girl said “peace and happiness and beauty” (which I loved). When it was my turn, I told them I want to feel like I know God’s love ever more fully, through my awareness and receiving of it and my ability to pass even a fraction of that love along to others. The opportunities are there to proclaim God’s truth without being pushy or belittling the way others see life. Probably in America just as in China.

On an entirely different note, I must brag. We recently had a big teacher-student soccer match. My team lost 6-4. However…I scored the first goal of the game! To be fair, it was a team effort, as I received a pretty good pass, which was probably the more important play than my actual goal. Still, it goes in the books as a goal for me. :)

On another note: thievery. Mim and Maria’s home was recently burglarized. Several men climbed in their third-story window and rummaged through the house. They were unable to find money, and did no harm to the girls—other than the slight paranoia these girls now deal with—but did steal Maria’s laptop and Mim’s camera. This was pretty serious stuff. The school felt terrible, and responded by buying Maria a new computer and ordering that bars be put on all our windows. As nice as people are here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who will act in desperation with little regard for others—whether it be to literally feed themselves or to “feed” a computer game addiction (common here).

Now for a bit of irony. Several men were installing bars on our windows last week. They were working while Will and I were home. Around noon they all left—the foreman to return to finish the job, the other three men finished as they were only hired for temp work. About thirty minutes later, I heard footsteps outside of my slightly-open front door while in the kitchen. I looked over and saw my USB flash drive sitting in the doorway, then heard footsteps running back down the stairs (remember, I live on the sixth floor). I ran down the stairs, yelling at whoever was running. I caught up to the man, one of the workers there that morning, and motioned to the USB drive in my hand, unable to communicate with words but giving him a look that essentially said “what the hell is going on?!” He just pointed to his phone and walked away…which made no sense to me.

Will and I conceived of several possible explanations, the most logical one being that one of the men had pocketed the USB drive at some point that morning; then, one of his co-workers saw it, scolded the man, and returned it. He did it secretly, leaving it in the doorway, probably because he knew the whole situation looked really bad for him and his co-workers. I reported the situation to the school, and they are addressing the issue. I guess I got my stuff back, so no big deal. Maybe the man felt sorrow and shame for what he’d done. I don’t know. It’s not hard to forgive them, because the situation is almost more puzzling and laughable than frustrating. Although, it makes me think twice about having men I don’t know in my house. Is that actually unforgiveness, or forgiveness with caution?

One final observation. I occasionally face the helplessness of not being able to communicate. I’ve already mentioned the challenge of trying to order food or buy a belt without the use of words. But there is also something that happens here where people are constantly looking at me and pointing and laughing. Much of the time it’s best to assume it’s positive or sincere intrigue; they either are fascinated by the white American in their midst, or they know who I am and just want to be friendly. But occasionally, when students are in groups, they go into that gang mentality, which usually means I watch several students (usually boys, who are shyer than girls here) talk to each other about me. And there’s not much I can do. I don’t really know if they’re mocking me, so I have to seek detachment and avoid being too paranoid. And I can’t really banter with them, or take jabs at them. All I can really do is say hello, kindly smile back, keep walking if they don’t want to talk or stop for a moment if they do.

It definitely makes me ponder the meaning of Jesus’ silence in his final moments, where he clearly saw the wretchedness in the way others treated him, and could have easily used superior argument and rhetoric to humble his opponents, or could have “put people in their place” by using the same miraculous force that made God human and made a family-sized meal into a meal for thousands. Yet, he didn’t, choosing for many possible reasons the way of non-violence, non-retaliation. I’m not trying to equate these two scenarios, but to point out the challenge I feel to remain peaceful and warm and fight that urge to retaliate that comes with feeling threatened or mocked, instead telling myself “they know not what they do.” Or, maybe in my case, just remind myself, “I know not their language.”


Barb said...

You are amazing Matt. I love how you engage your students in conversation and then ta da...you are talking about "religion." At the end of these 10 months, I know you will have planted many seeds. It's lifestyle evangelism...it's "if necessary, use words."

Preach it son!

Zach said...

Mandy linked me to your blog. Great stuff...love your beuchner-esque voice and reflections on Christ and Chinese culture. I was really touched by the Chinese culture when I visited Ghandong province in 1999. They also petted my arm hair.