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May 10, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 5.10- A Second Day in the Church

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The morning air was clear enough to see several hues of blue in the sky. Cars honked as they swerved in between us in the intersection, the street was maybe a quarter full to capacity of pedestrians, and rattling chains alerted us of any bicyclists that were pedaling behind us. They would ring their rusty bells as they passed us by, the guys’ knees always pumping up and down like pistons- if there was not a cart loaded with merchandise in tow, then there would be a girl sitting daintily on the back seat, legs draped over one side of the bike and an arm around the guy’s waist in front.

It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city- just enough smog to give the atmosphere that unique texture my brain has associated so well with Beijing. We walked for maybe ten minutes, a straight shot from the southwest gate of Peking University. The city was already bustling at 10 a.m.

We turned right, then left through another gate, the city suddenly being left behind as we entered in the gated community where Tom lived. Several apartment buildings loomed up high above us, and nicely placed sidewalks brought us past some trees and patches of lawn.

The apartment complex, in comparison with the outside city, was nice and quiet. Mothers and their children, as well as a couple of older folk, were up and about. It wasn’t until we stepped into an apartment that we heard the singing- a joyful, unrestrained chorus of voices from somewhere inside. I turned to Tom and raised my eyebrows, who smiled and nodded in response.

We pushed open the door to an entire but small congregation, all sitting down in fold-up chairs that lined the living room, complete with an upright piano on which someone was playing enthusiastically. Tom, his friend, and I lowered our heads with respect as we walked through to a few open seats. Each seat had two different hymn books.

There was a sizeable amount of people there, ranging from college-aged students to the elderly. Continuing to sing in Chinese, hymn books still held high, a couple of people turned to watch as we sat down: three newcomers, one of whom was white and very tall.

I already felt the overwhelming sense of community there in that room. People on either side of us smiled and helped us find the right page for the next hymn, a gesture that invited us into the group and encouraged us to join in without inhibition. It was a jumble of Chinese to me, but I sang along anyways, trying to match the words I heard to the printed lyrics on the page. It was strangely beautiful, being surrounded by worshipping voices that I felt rather than understood.

It was a very foreign experience, not quite like anything I’ve experienced before. But I was fascinated as I sat in the group, watching and simply observing for a large part of the time. Watching them worshipping with such vigor made me reflect on my own beliefs and motivations inherent in living out my life.

The men were not nearly as timid as their male counterparts in the US when it came to singing. People were belting it out here, joyously and in unison, completely unreserved and truly lifting their voices up to God. The women were present too- but together, the chorus of voices was deep and full, not perfectly blended and pitched as a concert choir, but as conglomeration of jubilant individuals, perfect in its own regard.

It was quite the mix of people- I struggled to imagine what could have brought them all together, or whether they knew each other at all. It was probably the first demonstration of any religious gathering since I had come to China. My mind, left to wander, tried desperately to rationalize and to observe as if it were all a human construct. And yet it felt strangely comforting- something stirred from my past memories, experiences that I suspect are buried deep from when I was only a few years old, listening as a child to the Chinese congregation that my parents and perhaps grandparents had been a part of back in the states. I could never eliminate my bias. But without it, what sense of my life could be made?

One of the guys smiled and passed me his smartphone, nodding for me to take it. I glanced down and saw the English lyrics of the hymn we were singing. I was touched and accepted gratefully. Before long, I heard the guy switch into English, singing just as loudly and enthusiastically as before. These guys didn’t tire of praising the Lord. Occasionally there would be lapses, where instead of singing the lyrics, they would read those same song lyrics out loud, declaring the truths encapsulated in the verses and having the congregation answer in approval. I felt a little part inside of me stir each time someone else jumped in, continuing with utmost conviction. Abundant amounts of “amens” were heard… affirming each other as they all took turns.

I was hard pressed to find the source of their enthusiasm as they cycled between singing and calling out the lyrics to the rest of the congregation. These weren’t quiet, mumbled “amens” that they used, mind you- no, these were rallying cries, nod-worthy calls that called for complimentary snapping, used in a way akin to “hear, hear” or in a more contemporary setting,  “true that.” The ebb and flow of the assertions and responses came in audible patterns- certain vocal intonations of the words were used over and over again, speech-like inflections that at times pulled them into a natural rhythm.

A wafer was broken and passed around. A tiny beaker of wine was poured into thimble-sized cups. The physical reminder of communion was powerful, and I reflected on why the church partook in such practices. But to think that I could go halfway across the world, and celebrate the same death and resurrection of the same Jesus Christ that I believed came to save all of us… it was worth taking a break from worship and spending personal time in reflection and remembrance.

The communion was a very quiet ordeal- I struggled to categorize it. It was too subtle to be purely ritualistic, and yet there was definitive convention. The bread and wine were passed out during worship and consumed individually. It was no longer simply cultural, yet why did this house church service deem it necessary to include?

There was no pastor or figure of authority during the entire house service. The worship was followed up with a look at certain texts from the Bible. People took turns, and it seemed that testimony, affirmation, and calls to action followed one after another. I could see that people were encouraging one another, sharing what they personally gained from the text, summarizing their own thoughts and offering them up to the whole congregation- they functioned as one body seeking the truth. Amen. Another person would stand up, smile and share their own message, speaking powerfully as they preached for a couple of minutes. Amen. Amen! The flow of it all was never broken.

The entire meeting was both individual and communal. Having only a vague grasp of what their testimonies were about, I saw that they were encouraging and clearly moved by the words that each of them spoke. And yet I looked long and hard for any sense of an external force- were they acting out of necessity? Faith? Or the security and comfort of support? They each lived their own lives, yet all of them looked toward the same text in the Bible to answer their questions. Each had a slightly different take-away and shared thusly, yet always mentioned the same God.

I loved hearing the different voices. The elderly women in the corner, the tall man in the front. Some led more than others. Some spoke several times. But no one was self-seeking. It was truly the spectacle of one body gathered for the purpose of lifting each other up and glorifying God. Everyone was present and connected.

I wondered what it was that kept them coming, week after week, what motivated them to warrant such a gathering. What I saw was beautiful, yes- a group of people coming together for a unified purpose and acting as a single body. But there are beautiful lies. 

A simple lunch was served. A pot of rice, several shared dishes, paper plates, and plastic forks. And then came another beautiful thing: Tom’s friend was so moved by service, by this new congregation he had never been to before, by the love shown and the love reflected of a God he knew somewhere deep in his heart, that he felt called to be born again that very hour. The baptism was another humble but practical affair, conducted in the filled bathtub in the bathroom. Brothers laid hands on him and prayed and blessed him, before carefully lowering his head into the water. And I saw that the power of Christ was not limited to huge cathedrals or well-endowed churches, large modern facilities or polished stages, expensive worship equipment or microphones or even a church itself. Church was where the people were. And I could see that here in China, the body of Christ existed in modest apartment rooms, the voices of those exalting their Lord, and bathroom tiles made holy by reverence to God alone.

Traditions and the structure of a Christian service were certainly different from back home, and I saw that I could not rationalize my own familiar experiences being “right” and all other practices being “wrong” without conceding that to everyone else, my practices were just as unfamiliar and wrong. Even believing that every practice was wrong, that Christianity in its entirety was false, was a practice in itself. I left concluding nothing but the realization that each world belief, God or no God, many gods or quasi-gods, were all equal but infinitely thin slices of the pie that is truth. To ascertain whether or not I had the right beliefs- through pure scrutiny, logic, and reason- was at best, a fool’s errand, and at worst, spiritual roulette. And yet I was now back to square one.

The walk back gave me time to reflect, to think and ponder what I had experienced that Sunday morning. An unfamiliar sense of doubt hung around, natural incertitude that accompanies any faith, that perhaps was dug up and exposed by being displaced into a strange and foreign environment. Routine and familiarity, after all, are the enemy of true faith. I went home and turned to James 1:5 in Scripture:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

I got down on my knees and prayed.

 

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