Reflections from Disciples New Church Pastors trip to China
Global Ministries and New Church Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) teamed up to organize an immersion trip to China August 30 to September 15, 2006. The purpose of the trip was to expose new church pastors to Global Ministries’ partners in China and to experience firsthand the vibrant Chinese church. Each participant was encouraged to consider how this exposure to the global church could have an impact on their new church starts back in the U.S. and Canada.
Reflections on China
by Jim Gordon
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to visit China with my friends and colleagues in New Church Ministry; and I feel greatly blessed to have shared this experience with a most amazing ambassador for Christ, the Rev. Dr. Xiaoling Zhu, Area Executive for East Asia and Pacific, Common Global Ministries of Disciples and UCC, and a delightful journalist, Sherri Wood Emmons (Managing Editor of Disciples World). In my 39 years of ministry, I have never had a more eye-opening or more heart-warming experience. I will always cherish the memories, the friendships and the insights that I have gained.
And, speaking of friendships, I feel that one of the great values of this trip was the opportunity to bond with a wonderfully gifted, culturally diverse group of New Church pastors. What a great experience that was! I am a better pastor and a better person for having been in the company of such committed servants of Jesus Christ.
As for my experiences in China, I hardly know where to begin. I was overwhelmed by the number of people that I saw and by the thousands of high-rise apartment buildings that we passed. As I tried to comprehend the immensity of it all, I recalled a poem I once read. I don’t recall who wrote it, but I do remember the words (more or less)—and somehow they seemed to fit what I saw during the two weeks that I was there. The poem went something like this:
Before my inward open vision, millions of faces crowd into view; sad eyes that say, “For us is no provision—give us your Savior too. Give us,” they cry, “your cup of consolation; never to our outreaching hands ‘tis passed. We long for the Desire of every nation; and we die, oh so fast.”
But, in spite of the hugeness of the task, there is no doubt in my mind that the church will continue to grow . . . because the spiritual vitality of the Church in China is unmistakable. I saw evidence of it everywhere we went.
I will never forget the energy and enthusiasm of the pastors that we met (some of them much older than I). Even though they had been through some very difficult times in the past, they were totally focused on the future and full of excitement about the new facilities they were planning to build and the new ministries they were planning to undertake. I was inspired by their dedication and by their refusal to let age or circum- stances deter them from their calling.
I will never forget the commitment of those faithful souls who attended the Sunday worship service in Nanjing (some of whom had been there since 5:30 a.m.). The extreme heat and humidity could not keep them away. Nor could the lack of seating space keep them away. They were determined to worship God, even if they had to stand outside under the open windows or gather around a closed-circuit TV in the building next door in order to participate. I found this to be in stark contrast to the apathy that so often characterizes the church in America.
I will never forget the rural church that we visited where the entire congregation came out to greet us—on a Saturday! I was humbled by their wonderful hospitality and by their extreme generosity. The choir sang beautifully and with such obvious love for the Lord. But the most memorable part of the visit was when we said our good-byes. The smiles, the handshakes, the hugs, the tears—all served to underscore the fact that we are one body in Christ . . . with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. And as I looked out the back window of the bus and saw the people standing at the gate watching us depart, I felt that I was leaving part of my family behind. It was a very moving experience!
And, most of all, I will never forget the young woman from Xi’an (Lucy) who, during the flight to Beijing, accepted an invitation to attend worship the following Sunday. I was so honored to be able to give her the Bible that I had purchased as a souvenir while I was in Shanghai. She is now on our church prayer list as well as my personal prayer list. I am hoping to make contact with her via e-mail to let her know that she remains in my thoughts and prayers.
One of the most meaningful moments of our entire trip was the Memorial Service for Rev. Zhu (Xiaoling’s father) in Hefei. I felt greatly honored to be present for this service. It was very apparent that Rev. Zhu was greatly loved by the students and faculty of Anhui Seminary. One of the students who sang in the choir caught my eye because of the tears that she shed during the service. Later, another member of our group commented to me that he had observed the same thing. The soloist (Xiaoling’s sister-in-law) communicated in a powerful way the hope that is ours in Christ. I didn’t have to understand the words to understand the message of the song—and it lifted my spirit.
I was also grateful for the opportunity to meet Michael and Doreen McFarlane (in Nanjing) and Elizabeth and Doug Searle and their son (in Chengdu). They are capable and caring people, and it makes me proud to know that people of their caliber and commitment are serving in China. If I didn’t love doing New Church Ministry so much, I would seriously consider joining them.
I was tremendously impressed with the social service/education programs of Amity and the Amity Printing Press. I knew that China was no longer closed to Christianity and to the dissemination of the Gospel, but I was totally unprepared for what I saw when we visited the printing press. The work that they are doing is phenomenal. I couldn’t believe how many Bibles they are printing and distributing (with the help of United Bible Societies) throughout China. And to think that some of my friends in America are still under the impression that Bibles are being smuggled into China. How things have changed!
If there is one need that weighs more heavily on the Church in China than any other need, it would have to be the need for teachers who can prepare young men and women for ministry in the local church. There are thousands of congregations (i.e., meeting places) without an ordained pastor. The seminaries and Bible Schools are doing the best that they can with woefully inadequate resources; but they need to do more. Hopefully, the check that I am forwarding by snail mail will help to equip the library at Anhui Seminary with some much-needed books.
I could write many more pages about my experiences in China and the feelings that I have about what is happening there. But, hopefully, what I have written will serve to convey my profound gratitude for the opportunity that was given to me. Thank you, Rick, for inviting me to participate. And thank you, Xiaoling, for the grace and good humor that you extended to all of us while we were there. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life; and it has given me a whole new appreciation for the work that is being done through Global Ministries. If part of the purpose for this trip was to help new churches like Cross Bridge become more outwardly focused, it certainly worked. If you ever decide to take another trip to China, I would love the opportunity to tag along.
An American Tourist in China
by Rosalyn Nichols
It has been a full week now since I returned from visiting across China. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel from the bustling urban city of Shanghai with its bright lights, and constantly moving overcrowded streets, to the city of reconstruction that in 2008 will be overwhelmed by the visitors to Bejing for the Olympics. All across China there is mass reconstruction; cranes and builders are all around. I would say that the same is true of the church in China as well. While Christians in China make up only 1-2% of the entire population, certainly with a country of between 1.3 and 1.5 billion citizens, not to mention visitors and tourists, 1% of a 1.5 billion is still alot of believers in Jesus! There were many experiences along the journey that drew me closer to God and expanded my appreciation for the walk of faith. I will mention briefly a few.
The passage from my devotion that seemed to define and shape my travels was NLT Psalm 102:18 Let this be recorded for future generations, so that a nation yet to be created will praise the LORD.
On one of our flights two members of our delgation sat with a young woman who was strikingly attractive, tall for most Chinese, stylishly dressed and reserved. They began to share some fruit with her that we’d collected from the church we had visited before departing. As they shared the fruit they also shared the story, and began to talk to her about their faith and who they were as pastors. Pastor? What is a pastor? She had never heard of such, but as they shared, she said, This sounds like what I’ve been looking for. I want this for my life. I want to know about the church and Jesus. That in and of itself was so simply amazing. At home, in my part of the world, people seem so reluctant to share their faith. The very Constitution that gave us the gift of freedom of religion and freedom of expression now seem to have become like the bread the Pharisees berated Jesus and his disciples for eating when they were hungry. We’re so free to express until we’re reluctantly to express at all. As a pastor, I have to admit that I’ve been guilty to that as well. So careful not wanting to offend or appear presumptuous, until I’ve not shared at all. And look at what happened. Even as they sat on a plane and talked, inviting her to come to church with us the next day, without knowing where she was headed or what her intention was, without knowing for sure who we were or if we were sincere she agreed to come and meet us at church the next day.
Now honesty when was the last time you invited someone to attend church with you and at the same time didn’t even think for a minute that they really would come? Well that’s exactly what I thought, but that’s exactly what she did. Not only did she attend, but she was grateful to accept the bible that was presented to her, and she even remained after worship to pick up more information and find out more about the church. I was floored and humbled in my spirit. I truly wish to have that kind of experience back home. We last shared dinner with her the day before we were to leave when she joined us for dinner in Bejing. She is a former model and the owner of a golf store in Bejing. I do pray that she will truly come to know Jesus and give her life over to the joy of knowing the Lord. She will always stay in my heart and mind. Whenever I am given an opportunity I want to do what my brothers in China did and simply share my fruit and my faith along the way.
Which brings me to the next amazing experience I will always hold dear. The fruit that we had with us came from a very small church out in the rural parts of China where people worshipped surrounded by fields of corn. We had been in Xi’an visiting the local Bible College when we travelled to one of the oldest churches in the area. What was remarkable was that it had been built on the side of the mountain with wash basins that the people filled and carried up the side of the mountain in order to create the foundation upon which the church would be built. HIGH up the hill, one basin at a time, you could still see the edges of basins sticking out the side. The elder pastor, 80+ years old had seen so much, but he also had led many a soul to Christ, and encouraged so many to be faithful. What a testimony it was to be able to hear him speak of the building of his church. How awesome it was to think of how little the people started out with, but how much they created because of their willingness to make much and place it in the Master’s hand. Those basins for me became like the cup and the wine we share in Holy Communion. Such simple elements, bread and wine, but transformed in to life eternal when given over and offered by Jesus. Those basins too were ordinary but had been made extraordinary when placed in the hands and control of Jesus! And it did not stop there.
We left that church high up in the mountain to come down and go the church those same believers were now building because they had OUTGROWN that particular church. That is how we got to the corn fields. In we walked and in the middle of the room was a long table, a welcome table, if you will, filled with so many wonderful fruits and refreshing tea. The people ushered and encouraged us to have a seat. They sang and we sang, we prayed, we cried. It was amazing, awesomely amazing. As we were leaving, they would not let us leave empty handed. They gave us the fruit, the leftover, the remnant to take with us. These people who had so little for themselves, gave us what they had left over. They thrust it in our hands with joyful, tearful, happy faces. As we left, we had been shaking hands, but this time we hugged one another. We could not speak the language, but the language of the love of the Lord knows no boundaries. It is like Pentecost, it was communicated so that we all heard it in our own languages. The faces of those women and men who greeted us so warmly. I will never forget. As we drove away they stood in the door of that church and waved us, sent us onward with joy.
We sat that bus for a while simply silent and crying. It was overwhelming. To think of the devotion and faithfulness of God’s people not only to build with basins, but to believe God for a bigger building and a bigger church. One person said, but this is so far from those we left on the mountain how will they get there? This church is not for them is it? Yes, was the response. They are believing God also for a bus. In the presence of this kind of faithfulness I felt like the 10 who thought of themselves as grasshoppers, while the people of China no doubt see through the eyes of Caleb and Joshua.
I was inspired by what I saw and experienced in China. I was inspired afresh to believe more than what my eyes can see and my brain and process. When I stood at the first tower of the Great Wall I could not help but think of the audacity for the human mind to even conceive such a thing, let alone begin a project that you KNOW you will never see finished in your lifetime. That spoke profoundly to me as a new church planter; as one who longs to not only see, but stand in the Promise of the Lord’s abundance and goodness in the life of our new church, Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church. I was encouraged not to shrink back from thinking big; not to forsake imaging more for us than what seems possible at the very moment. I was inspired to think of those water basins and believe God to be with us in the midst of our faithfulness!
And yet China is still physically, economically and spiritually still under reconstruction. Time and again we heard people speak reconstructing a Chinese theology. A theology that reflected the faith journey unique to these people for whom Buddha, Toa, and Confuscious are far more common, where Muslims out number Christians. There is the need for a fresh look at how Chinese Christians express and redeem their faith when Christianity was first introduced through violence and therefore is under suspicion by many; where believers are often ostracized from family; where in the effort of reconcilation Chinese Christians are having to think seriously how they live in and not of the world around them, without alienating loved ones and people of different expressions of faith.
China is under reconstruction. As the Communist government seeks to create harmony, it is in favor of working with all faiths, including Christianity. It is helping to build churches, to support and encourage the faithful, but in the effort toward harmony, dissident voices, those necessary voices that push the margins and ultimatley make it possible for all to be heard. I was concerned when I heard the word heretic at one of the churches I visited because as an African American ordained female pastor, I know that for many years, and even in some places now, I am described as a heretic. My voice, and the voices of my people and my gender were told to keep silent, but it has been for me those voices that refused to keep silent that reflect to me the voice of Jesus who came not to keep harmony all the time, but to bring salvation back into the world. I come from the tradition of the heretic who said, peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. I pray that in China’s work toward harmony they don’t mistake dissension for disharmony. I pray that my Christian brothers and sisters in China will not only find their voice, but that in so doing they are able to achieve what in America have not yet achieved which is true liberty and justice for all of its people; both individually and collectively.
This will call for China not to let progress become their god; not to allow the reconstruction to define them; not to allow the movement beyond the pain of the Cultural Revolution to create a silent, underground pain and suffering. When the goal of the group is to harmony, there has to be safe place and space for those individuals who are not experiencing harmony to feel comfortable coming forward without fear of retribution from the group.
And so I pray for the crippled woman who sat in the church square and said that her daughter beat her for being what she described as ‘useless’. I pray for the homeless people I saw lying begging on the street. I pray for those peasants who have no land of their own. I pray for those who barter away themselves to me for goods and services I’d easily pay more for at home. I pray for the man who I saw playing his flute as his small son begged for coins from passersby.
Just like home, there is so much to be thankful for, and yet so much to be prayerful for as well. There is the Forbidden City, but thanks be to God there is the Unforbidden Cross of Jesus that means we the faithful, working either here in the United States or in China, have a record to keep for generations to come so that a nation to be created, not bound by land or sea, will praise the Lord!
Back from the Future
by David A. Shirey
Coolwater Christian Church
At some point on Wednesday, August 30, aboard American Airlines flight 289 from Chicago to Shanghai, just west of the westernmost Aleutian Island of Alaska and just east of northeasternmost Siberia, I realized I was crossing the International Dateline. I crossed over into tomorrow, left everything and everyone familiar behind, and entered into a new day. For the next two weeks, I got to live in that new day—the new day that is being enjoyed by the 1.2 billion people in China in general and China’s 16 million Christians in particular.
And then this past Tuesday, September 12, we awoke at 4:30 a.m. Beijing time in order to catch a flight to Tokyo for a transfer to our return flight to Chicago and a connecting flight to Phoenix, arriving in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, 32 hours after I awoke in China. Crossing the International Dateline in reverse, I returned from tomorrow to today– I came back from the future with a desire to share with you today what I saw happening in China tomorrow.
In a word, I observed three things in my trip to the church of tomorrow that I would like to see take root, grow, and bear fruit in me and in our congregation today. I observed among Christians in China:
- The irresistible power of God’s Word;
- The willing sacrifice of Christian people, and
- The inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit.
First, the irresistible power of God’s Word.
I had an inkling on the flight over that I was to pay attention to the power of words on this trip. As you know, I like words anyway. I like to read words, study words, write words, and reflect on what they mean.
I keep a journal as part of my daily spiritual discipline—Jennie and I read scripture together each morning, discuss whatever our reading of God’s Word triggers in our hearts and minds, and then pray together. I follow up that time by writing in my journal whatever it might be I sense God is saying to me—a sanctified diary is what it is. In preparation for my China trip, I bought myself a brand new journal to record my reflections and observations—a 70 sheet college-ruled red spiral notebook that I filled over two weeks. I brought home 70 pages worth of words—a verbal scrapbook of a once-in-a-lifetime trip– by far my most significant souvenir. And one of the recurrent themes I discerned in rereading my journal entries on the long flight home was the irresistible power of God’s Word in China.
How so? In the production of millions of Bibles, for instance. We toured the Amity Bible Printing Company in Nanjing, an endeavor initially sponsored by United Bible Societies world-wide in 1988 and now self-sustaining. We toured that Bible printing press on Sunday afternoon, September 3, and were struck by the magnitude of the operation. “This is no Mom-and-Pop print shop,” one of my colleagues said. Indeed not. Last month alone, 720,000 Bibles were printed. Over 50 million have been printed in less than 20 years. Its 320 employees work 24/7 in order to keep up with the increasing demand of Chinese Christians for Bibles– Bibles that are readily and legally available at Christian bookstores and churches for $1.50 a piece.
We witnessed first-hand that hunger for God’s Word. After the church we attended in Beijing let out last Sunday, we stood in the courtyard and watched as people lined up at what looked like ticket windows at an adjacent building.
“What are they doing?,” we asked.
“They’re getting in line to buy Bibles and other Christian literature,” was the answer.
Standing in that line was a woman who had sat next to the two Chinese members of our delegation on an airplane trip the day before from Xi’an to Beijing. The entirety of her story I’ll save for another day, but she was introduced to the Christian faith by conversation with our hosts, wanted to hear more, was invited by them to join us for church the next day, came, listened, and after worship got in line to buy a Bible so she could learn more about this faith and this man named Jesus. Jim Gordon, my roommate for the latter part of the trip and a new church pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, saw her in line, walked over to her, and handed her a Chinese-English Bible he had purchased himself just a few days earlier at a church in Shanghai. The way she received that Bible, held it, and leafed through its pages for the first time was a precious sight I’ll never forget.
It’s a precious thing, God’s Word, and churches in China are sending their own to the seminaries that have been resurrected from the persecution of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in order to learn it and study it so they can return to their home churches and teach it to a new-born generation of believers who are all ears when it comes to hearing and learning from God’s Word.
And teachers are desperately needed for those new believers. The vast majority of churches are served by lay people with little or no formal education. We learned there is 1 seminary-educated pastor per 10,000 believers in China. It will take 90 years to be able to provide even 1 pastor per church if they graduate 500 pastors per year and no one dies! To see the desire and commitment of current Chinese Christians of all ages to do whatever is necessary to equip themselves so as to pass on the faith to a new generation made me evaluate my own commitment to studying God’s Word. I want to be able to teach it more effectively to our congregation as we begin next month’s new Christian Education classes on Sunday morning. How does our passion for learning and teaching the Bible compare? Do we share their recognition of the preciousness of God’s Word?
We met a young man at Nanjing Seminary from Xinjiang Province in far northwestern China where the dominant religion is Islam. The child of non-Christians, at age 15 he read a book about the Bible. Intrigued by what he read, he asked a friend he knew to be a Christian if he could borrow his family’s Bible so as to read it. His friend regretted he couldn’t lend out the family Bible because it was “too precious.” But he did invite him to come to church where he could hear the Bible read each week and interpreted by the Pastor and sung in hymns and spoken as part of the language of faith. He accepted the invitation, fell in love with God’s Word and the people who opened its pages and meaning to him, in time was baptized, was sent to seminary, and now at a tender age is teaching Bible in seminary.
We witnessed the preciousness and power of God’s Word time and again in China. Do we take this book for granted here? Do we ache to study it so as to teach it to others? Are we aware of the power its pages transmit to lives open to its teachings?
In China, I beheld the irresistible power of God’s Word.
I beheld as well the willing sacrifice of Christian people.
Christianity first came to China as far back as the 7th century, only to be forbidden by one of the emperors and for all intents and purposes disappear until a new wave of missionary activity in the mid- to late-19th century. Sadly, the missionary work that took place in those early years was largely counter-productive. It was linked with imperialistic endeavors that took advantage of the Chinese people, showed disdain for their culture, and abused their trust to the point that Christianity was scorned as an invasive, alien religion by people who had been invaded by all-too-many outside forces for centuries.
There were, however, a blessed few missionaries who came to China respecting its indigenous culture and who patiently, prayerfully sought ways to lovingly sow the seeds of the faith from within rather than force-feeding it from without. These missionaries, including several from our own church family, the Disciples of Christ, did so by first establishing ministries of compassion and service. Social service became the key to opening hearts to the gospel.
For instance, we visited Drum Tower Hospital in Nanjing. Founded in 1892 by a Disciples missionary, Dr. William Macklin, it is today one of the oldest hospitals in China and the largest in Nanjing, renown for its Medical School and healthcare services. (Photo: author at Drum Tower Hospital with Ms. Xiaomin Qi, Director of Foreign Affairs Department)
Disciples missionaries also began schools in those early years, several of which sought to educate women and the rural poor, some of which are still operating today and counted among China’s best.
Today the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus is continued by the sacrificial service of the staff and volunteers of what is called the Amity Foundation, a church-affiliated social service ministry supported by our Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Its ministry includes 16,000 “clinics of love” in rural areas underserved by China’s still-developing medical system, homes for the aged, care for physically-challenged and special needs children, many of whom are abandoned each year at the doors of Amity-assisted orphanages. Add to that an extensive blindness-prevention and HIV/ AIDS awareness programs done on a shoestring budget with volunteers and underpaid staff as well as a program dedicated to providing English teachers to impoverished students in under-equipped rural areas. Many of these Amity teachers are persons from the U.S. who are willing to spend two years in a remote village teaching English at a stipend of $5,000/ year plus an additional 2,500 Chinese yuan ($300/ month). Nothing to get rich on—but as we were reminded over and over again as we heard the stories of our missionaries and our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters, following Christ is not about a whopping salary but a willing sacrifice. The Church in China is built on the willing sacrifices of its leaders and its people.
Take the elder generation of Christians in China. If you’re a Christian in China and you’re aged 50 or above, you have suffered and sacrificed for your faith.
The Rev. Xiaoling Zhu, Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific of Common Global Ministries of Disciples and UCC, our leader told us one morning on the bus of his personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, a time of unimaginable chaos and upheaval in China, and persecution for the church. Churches were closed during those years, Christianity went underground, and many Christians, including Xiaoling, were persecuted for their faith. Age 16 at the time, Xiaoling was forced to wear a dunce hat at school and a sandwich-board placard on his chest that read: I’m a disciple of Christ because his father was the only minister in the city. His family was forced to give up their parsonage. A 16 square meter room became their new home. Xiaoling’s father was taken away by the Red Army and was bound and tormented for three harrowing days without food before being released. Xiaoling himself was sent away to a rural area for 8 years to farm rice at 10 cents a day. His story and that of his father (whose memorial service we attended at the seminary he founded in the early 80s and where he was still serving as President at age 92) were representative of any number of senior Christians we met in China. The common denominator in their lives was willing sacrifice for the cause of Christ.
But younger Christians, too, were sacrificing. We visited several seminaries and were amazed to see students the age of our high-schoolers who had been sent by their churches to Bible schools and seminaries for two or three years to be educated and would then be returning to their home churches to be teachers and leaders without pay or with very little pay– $40 a month is the salary of many pastors. We also saw laypersons in their late-20s, 30s and 40s—including mothers and fathers who had left their families in order to do the same thing… and they did so gladly.
Rev. Gao Ying, the Vice-President of Nanjing Jingling Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, told us her story over dinner. How she had been raised in a non-Christian family. How her parents were active party members. How in the late-70s as the Cultural Revolution ended, she was hungry for hope, for love, for goodness in the wake of such terror and tragedy. How she quietly went to church one Sunday with a friend. How she heard the preacher preach “You must be born again” and how in that moment “something touched my heart” and how in the ensuing year she was awe-struck by how Christians really did “love one another.” Within a year she was baptized, took the seminary entrance exam, was accepted… and was summarily disowned by her parents.
I was reminded as she told her story of how we had just heard the seminary choir sing us two songs. They were thirty or so in number, high school-aged, maybe a few in their early- to mid-twenties, half of whom were likely first-generation Christians. Their choir director, an American mission partner who had just arrived with his wife for a two-year stint introduced the first song which they sang in English and then prefaced the second song by saying, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know this one because it’s in Chinese and I haven’t heard the translation yet, but as you’ll hear, they sure sing it with a lot of heart.” And they sure did, and several us recognized it instantly— it was the old gospel tune called “I Surrender All.” How fitting! The Chinese Christians we met, their elders, and the faithful missionaries who preceded them could well have sung that as their theme song: I Surrender All.
Hearing that music and remembering the stories I’d heard of such willing sacrifice, I wrote in my journal: I am being called to go further and deeper and make more willing sacrifices because of the witness I’ve seen here. I’m not sure exactly what form that sacrifice will take for me—but I’m praying God will show me what I can do to stand in fuller solidarity with my Chinese brothers and sisters who willingly surrender all and I invite you to consider the same. The Chinese Church is built on sacrifice of its people just as the universal Church is built on the sacrifice of its Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Coolwater’s witness will be built upon the foundation of your sacrifice and mine.
But I hasten to add this: The sacrifice I witnessed in China was willingly and joyfully offered. In China, I witnessed the inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit spilling out all over.
I witnessed that joy the first day in Shanghai as we visited with Elder Ji Jianhong, leader of the Chinese Protestant Churches who hosted us in his office with what we came to expect everywhere we went: a cup of hot tea and a warm welcome. The Chinese people received us everywhere with open hands, open hearts, and an open table. Our cups ranneth over. As Elder Ji spoke, his cell phone rang—some things transcend culture!—and the ring tone was Ode to Joy: “Joyful, Joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love….” I heard that refrain and that joy everywhere we went.
In sanctuaries on Sunday mornings to be sure. Where the main sanctuary was filled at least forty-five minutes before the service started, where people sat outside the open windows to listen in or in an adjoining building where they could watch on closed circuit television and then leave so another group could come for the next service and pack it again to overflowing—a pattern that repeated itself up to six times over the course of one weekend. Where a bold Amen! followed every petition of prayer. Where the Lord’s Prayer was almost shouted with conviction. Where the singing was so full and broad that the rafters shook. Where in one of the churches a guest from another province shared an offering of singing and dancing to a piece called “Jesus Is the Light of the World” and as he sang, the sun shone through a yellow sun-shaped piece of stained glass right on cue, bringing a bright smile to his face and the congregation’s at the same time.
I saw joy in children’s faces when we stepped into an adjoining Sunday school building in one church and entered a room no more than 20’ x 20’ where we were greeted by 60 (I counted them) first-and second-graders and four teachers who leapt to their feet to greet Western visitors, beaming from ear-to-ear and singing together at the top of their lungs a song in Chinese whose words were “Welcome to the Family of God.”
Joy permeated the meals we shared with our hosts in each of the places we visited… and my, the meals we shared! I ate cuisine I’ve never seen before, let alone eaten (some of which was looking right back up at me!) including squid, snail, lotus root, duck, shark fin and seaweed soup and untold other things there’s no English word for and no way to describe, but the long, leisurely pace of the meals and the rich conversation we shared as we broke bread filled us body, mind, and spirit.
It seemed everywhere we went we looked into faces etched with joy. Overwhelmed at times, I wrote one day in my journal, “I have a palpable sense of joy welling up within me. The joy that Paul says is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.”
And it dawned on me then and there how what I witnessed in China all fits together: The irresistible power of God’s Word. The willing sacrifice of Christian people. The inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit. The more you enter into God’s Word, the more you sense the call to surrender all; the more you sacrifice willingly for the Lord and for others, the more joy wells up within you and splashes all over you; the more joy you experience, the more you hunger for God’s Word; and the cycle begins anew– Word, Sacrifice, Joy, each time deeper, richer, and more satisfying than before.
I’ve come this morning to tell you I’ve come back from the future. I’ve been to tomorrow and I’ve seen a church burgeoning with growth and vitality and energy, a church marked by a hunger for God’s Word, a church willing to sacrifice for Christ’s sake, a church soaked in the joy of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve come back from the future to tell you that we can be that kind of church tomorrow too, if today we give ourselves again to the One whose kingdom is without end.
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13) AMEN.