“He is risen. Risen. RIS-en, R-I-S-E-N…but with a “Z” sound. Risen, meaning, got up…dead, then alive. Risen. Yes, good, you got it!” So went a conversation with a Christian student on the way to a local church service yesterday morning, as I explained that on Easter, the more traditional greeting of “how are you” is often replaced by Christians with “he is risen—he is risen indeed.”
So I guess it turns out I’m kind of a holiday Christian (attending church only on Easter and Christmas). This is actually the first time I’ve been to the local church worship service since I arrived in China. A very small group of students at the school attend, along with another foreign teacher. I decided this was as good as any week to join in, knowing I wouldn’t necessarily be fully in-the-know as to what they were singing, praying, talking about.
But it was special, as I guessed it would be. Like several churches I attended in South America a couple years ago, there’s something profound about gathering with brothers and sisters in another culture, regardless of the language differences. Add to this that it was communion Sunday—a part of the Christian worship experience I cherish—and it felt like a beautiful expression of the diversity yet connectedness of God's Kingdom.
And not simply diversity of country, but of history and circumstances. It was thought-provoking to look around the sanctuary at the spread of ages and ponder the path these individuals have taken toward Christ and toward freely expressing their devotion to Christ. Many were older, probably coming to the Christian faith in a time where rules were strict about free expression of religion here. And many were younger, probably knowing only the religious freedom that is allowed under China’s “three-self church” that enables Christians to worship but with a little bit of the government keeping a watchful eye (mostly, I think, to limit foreign influence on the church and to ensure that Christians don’t disrupt the peace).
It was a packed room, a congregation singing “He Lives” (the only song I recognized), listening attentively to the young pastor’s message, and watching 50-60 people (!) get baptized (two baptism services a year). And of course, communion—a simple act but rich with meaning and unifying in its practice. I’m not really sure why I’ve waited so long to check out the local church, and will certainly return several times before leaving China.
Actually, it felt like a celebration of Easter all week. I had multiple opportunities to tell the story of Easter, maybe a bit more freely than I might have done so in the past. This is partially because it’s good cultural education for the students, and partly because, as I mentioned recently, I’ve gained the trust of many here and begun to earn the right to share with others those things and values I hold dear.
One odd link between Easter and China is that this weekend is a Chinese holiday as well—“Tomb Sweeping Day.” Many students returned home for the three-day weekend to accompany their families in visiting the graves of relatives and ancestors to light firecrackers and incense and offer prayers to the deceased. So a lot of conversations have emerged as my students and I explain the meaning of our respective “tomb-centered” holidays.
It’s both fun and strange sharing the Easter story. I have to simplify and repeat at times for my students to ensure they understand my English, but I frequently get “oohs” and “ahhs” or sometimes puzzled looks when I get to the part of the story where God resurrects this Jewish man from the dead and that, beyond simply being miraculous and novel, this event also carries with it a lot of meaning having to do with love and hope. I can often gather from my students’ expression that they are processing this, perhaps something like, “I respect Matt’s intelligence and opinions and the way he seems to approach life and treat others…Matt believes this and talks about it like it’s important…what do I do with this?”
I could be misguidedly assuming this process is happening in more people than it is. But I’m confident my words provoke some kind of reflection, especially among those students who are beginning to more deeply ask those existential questions as they seek direction in what to do with their lives, what to think, what to value, what to believe. It’s wonderful to have earned the right to share these things, and to feel I’ve had integrity in the way I’ve sought to honor and respect my students and their culture rather than be manipulative or pushy in expressing my opinions.
We teachers bought supplies for egg coloring at English Corner. I thought it would be a bit childish for them, but the students enjoyed it, and it provoked some fun conversations and a few silly moments. (English Corner attendees, by the way, are typically students who want to put extra time into practicing their English and visit with foreign teachers in a more informal way.)
It was fun to walk around and explain the significance of the egg at Easter—both the elusive rabbit who hides eggs and the original Christian significance of the egg. Which, to be honest, I had never really wondered about until this past week. It seems the egg was adopted by early Christians from pagan religion as a symbol of new life, a way of reminding one another of the living Christ by giving eggs to one another on Easter. I guess this is one of many wonderful traditions I’ve missed out on living my whole Christian life as an Evangelical; I think maybe we E’s have a tendency to be a bit oblivious to our rich Christian tradition at times, missing out on some real treasures as a result.
It really did end up being a celebration of Easter, but in a new and unique way. I’ve never had the opportunity to explain to so many people the meaning of Easter, people who are learning about this for the first time. The church I attended in Xiaogan is the exception, but they are a minority compared to my students who have a range of awareness about Easter, though relatively little awareness.
I think explaining the death and resurrection to a non-Christian is profound in that in doing so I’m really forced to consider the significance and scandal and absurdity of what it is I’m saying, as opposed to the affirming “amens” that come with sharing my beliefs with like-minded people.
There’s something powerful in sharing with others what I believe to be the best news in the world. I do it knowing that my ability to believe is not dependant on others’ agreement with that belief, but is my “two cents” on Truth, on the human story, shared with a sort of confident yet humble attitude that seeks the other’s two cents as well. So much good, so much learning, and so much love can emerge when beliefs are exchanged in the context of such respectful and inquisitive dialogue.
And it’s possible the most positive outcome of my “proclaiming” of this so-called good news was not any kind of good it did in the lives of others but that I feel my students understand me a bit more now. There are few things so scary yet so wonderful as being known.