A China-themed Lord’s Supper talk

Every second summer we visit family and friends in the U.S. and Canada, since Jessica’s from New Hampshire and I’m from B.C. This summer churches in both countries asked me to do the Sunday morning Communion talk, which means talking for a few minutes to prepare everyone to take the Lord’s Supper, which is, in those kinds of churches, a weekly ceremony where everyone very solemnly gets a cracker crumb and a sip of grape juice to commemorate Jesus’ death and silently think about its significance for a moment or two (symbolically, it’s sharing a meal together, hence the token “bread” and “wine”, in imitation of Jesus’ final meal with His closest followers before He was crucified).

While the form of this particular church heritage’s Lord’s Supper ceremony could be much improved (back in grad school we did it as part of a real meal with real food, sitting around an actual dinner table at someone’s apartment), someone who knows their Bible and theology would still be able to explain the powerful meanings and community implications that this ceremony is supposed to communicate.

Anyway, of course I made my talk China-themed, though different for each church since they’re both very different. The American church is mostly (but not entirely) white, middle and upper-middle class with a high level of education (closely connected to a local Christian university and it’s graduate school of theology). The Canadian church is in the middle of the most ethnically diverse region in all of Canada, so they have a large number of first-generation immigrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe in addition to a born-and-raised-Canadian legacy crowd of fifth and sixth-generation immigrants.

Each church is also going through different things, so I emphasized different things to each church. At one church I said very little about the form/style of the ceremony but emphasized its social status division-demolishing meaning; in the other church I talked more about cultural differences. Below, I’ve mashed both talks together so it’s a bit of a mess, aiming for too many targets at once, but there it is.

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When you live immersed in a culture that’s very different from the one you grew up in, like my family does in China, it gives you lots of opportunities to notice how our own culture from North America affects not only our understanding of the Gospel, but also our experience of life together in the Kingdom of God.

Take sharing a meal together, for example (since that’s what we’re about to do, at least symbolically). If there’s one thing the Chinese know how to do well, it’s eat together. When you’re invited to a meal in China, everyone sits around a round table, facing each other, looking across more food than the guests can possibly finish. And you literally eat and drink together; you don’t scoop food on to your plate with a serving spoon and then eat off your own plate. There are no serving spoons and you don’t get your own plate. You and everyone else each take each bite with chopsticks directly from the serving dishes. Foreigners in China (like us and the other North Americans and Europeans that we know) usually call this “eating family-style”.

And it’s not just the food: even though you get your own cup, you won’t fill it yourself; someone else will make sure it doesn’t stay empty. And before each sip from your cup you’ll first catch someone’s eye across the table, raise your glasses toward one another, and then drink together. Or you’ll first clink glasses with everyone before all drinking together. But you never drink on your own.
chinese_banquet_toast
It’s all intended to communicate acceptance, respect, and togetherness. When you literally share the same bowl of food and acknowledge one another with every single sip, you’re saying that we’re in the same group; you’re one of us and I’m one of you (or at the very least, we could be). You’re honouring each other. It’s a reinforcement and celebration of that circle of relationships, of that community.

And so here we are, on the other side of the world, symbolically sharing a meal that also expresses a kind of togetherness – but this is a togetherness that only Jesus’ death and resurrection can make possible: where the honour we all receive as guests at Christ’s table, as adopted siblings in His family, and as fellow subjects in His Kingdom, transcends and makes obsolete the artificial status divisions of race, nationality, economic class, and gender. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – we all sit equally at this table.

Now, the meal we’re about to share doesn’t look much like a Chinese meal. Maybe one day it could. But for now at least, this church does things according to the culture and traditions of the fourth, fifth and sixth-generation immigrants to Canada – white, native English speakers. We are lovers of efficiency and convenience, and we’re highly individualistic and private. That’s why we have our little cracker crumbs, single-sip cups, and individual moments of introspection where we see the back of one another’s heads instead of each other’s faces. It’s almost like someone in the 19th century asked, “How efficient and individualistic can we make this meal while still technically ‘eating together’?”

Our modern form of Communion emphasizes each individual person’s individual relationship with God more than our relationship with God, or with one another as God’s people together. That’s why, even though we’re sitting next to each other, we typically close our eyes and ignore each other so we can have our personal moment of prayer and reflection. You can maybe imagine how from a certain angle that looks a bit odd: everyone coming together and then trying to do the most important thing alone. But that’s our modern culture and tradition. You can take it or leave it.

The New Testament churches, however, did this ceremony much more like a real meal. They were served by the host family of whatever home they were meeting in, with real bread and real wine. We can safely assume this just based on what we know about the 1st century world in general, but we can also see this reflected in the specific problems that the first churches faced that were related to the Lord’s Supper (it’s hard to overeat on cracker crumbs, for example, and it’s even harder to get drunk on grape juice. Can you imagine? Getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper? Maybe that’s why we changed it to grape juice… So we got rid of the alcohol but kept the shot glasses…?). But it helps to remember that they weren’t only somberly memorializing Christ’s death; they were also celebrating His resurrection and the new life together that they shared because of it.

Those New Testament churches didn’t have church buildings or pews or special round silver trays with little shot glasses. The shared homes and dinner tables and food and wine. But still, regardless of what form or style we choose, whether 1st century or modern, when we share our cracker crumbs and sips of grape juice we’re remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and we’re also proclaiming that Jesus’ triumph over death has given us hope and new life with Him, and new life with each other together under His authority in His Kingdom.

When we do this ceremony together, however we do it, we’re saying that we’re part of the same big family, eating at Jesus’ dinner table together, and that the spiritual family bond we share, the allegiance to Christ that binds us together, takes priority over all other identities and allegiances.

At this family dinner table sixth-generation immigrants honour the first-generation immigrants as equal members; senior managers and nannies take from the same bowl; university professors acknowledge cafeteria workers before they drink – all of us humbled and all of us honoured together under Christ.

So as we share the Lord’s Supper together, remembering how Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed for us, and celebrating His resurrection and the new life together in His Kingdom under Him that His resurrection makes possible, let’s also use the image of a Chinese meal to consider what Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus’ triumph mean for us together.

And since I’m playing the “host” today, we’ll imitate an ancient New Testament church by having my “household” serve the “meal”.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Jesus, who makes it possible for us to receive the honour of sitting at Your table. Please teach us to realize in fact around our actual dinner tables the kind of community that we symbolically proclaim this morning. Amen.

Taiwanese_Last_Supper
When Jesus ate with chopsticks. (Click for source.)

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*Just to clear up potential confusion: This description of drinking at Chinese meals applies to the main beverage, which is alcoholic – usually beer, baijiu, and/or wine. Each person will also get a cup for tea or hot water as a secondary beverage that you can drink casually on your own. But the alcohol is the main drink, as it’s the one with the social significance.

Psalm 23 in Chinese

好牧人Two of the most spiritually formative parts of the Bible are Matthew 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer) and Psalm 23. And sometimes memorizing and meditating in a second language helps you pay attention to what you’re saying. So here’s Psalm 23 (Chinese New Version/新译本/CNV) with pinyin and English (mouseover or tap), and a downloadable 汉子/pÄ«nyÄ«n cheat sheet (PDF).

诗篇23篇
[1] 耶和华是我的牧人,我必不会缺乏。
[2] 他使我躺卧在青草地上,
领我到安静的水边。
[3] 他使我的灵魂苏醒;
为了自己的名,他引导我走义路。
[4] 我虽然行过死荫的山谷,也不怕遭受伤害,
因为你与我同在;
你的杖你的竿都安慰我。
[5] 在我敌人面前,你为我摆设筵席;
你用油膏了我的头,
使我的杯满溢。
[6] 我一生的日子,必有恩惠慈爱紧随着我;
我也要住在耶和华殿中,直到永远。

You can also read it alongside two other Chinese translations at Biblegateway.com (for phone Bible reading in China, I prefer the 精读圣经 app).

P.S. – I did the same thing with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.

How we end up living better every time we return to China

Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.

Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.

Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).

It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.

And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.

Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.

Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8:

  • Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
  • Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
  • Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
  • Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
  • Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
  • Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)

The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.

When the Communist government wants the People to have faith

Like English, the Chinese word for “faith” or “belief” (信仰) doesn’t necessarily have spiritual,religious, or metaphysical meaning. I most often encounter this word in two ways. First, from random men like taxi drivers and people on the bus who give a thumbs up and say, “Religious belief is good!” in response to finding out what I think about certain things. They almost always don’t have any ä¿¡ä»° themselves, but nonetheless have the general impression that believing in some religion – whatever religion – is a good thing.

The second way I often see this word is on the propaganda posters like the one above, which increasingly saturate public spaces from sidewalk vendors’ booths to hospital waiting rooms:

社会主义核心价值观
Socialism Core Values
人民有信仰,国家才有力量。
When the People have belief, then the nation has strength.

The Core Values get laid out in three categories: *国家 Nation, **社会 Society, ***公民 Citizens:

*富强、民主、文明、和谐
Prosperity, Democracy, Civilizedness, Harmony;
**自由、平等、公正、法治
Freedom, Equality, Justice, Rule by law;
***爱国、敬业、诚信、友善.
Patriotism, Dedication to one’s work, Integrity, Friendliness.

Although using ä¿¡ä»° this was might not be an explicitly religious reference, it does seem that the government sees its package of traditional Chinese culture, ethics (most emphasized: filial piety) and patriotism as direct competition for the spot formal or informal religions/ideologies/worldviews (including “Western values”) would occupy in the hearts and lives of the People.

In a similar but more eye-popping line of posters, the Chinese literally reads: “[Insert Core Value here] is a belief.” To read more about how the government uses “belief/faith” you can click that link, and also see Joann Pittman’s, In Democracy We Trust..

The Chinese state church’s call to worship song

During a recent Sunday lunch one of our kids mentioned, “Our Sunday school teacher told us we had to be quiet because we’re in God’s temple.”

chineseJesuschildrenWe told her the Sunday school teacher was wrong. (No hard feelings toward the teacher; you can’t expect volunteer Sunday school teachers to be theologians or exegetes, but temples and church buildings aren’t the same thing theologically or functionally.)

It’s not hard to guess why she would have said that: between the lyrics of the 3-Self Patriotic Church‘s opening song and Chinese Christians’ penchant for big church buildings with serious, stately services — our friend was turned away at the door of Qingdao’s flagship 3-Self church just last Sunday because she was wearing flip-flops and therefore “didn’t have a worshipful heart,” “wasn’t obedient to God,” and would “disturb other worshipers” — Chinese state churches send the “temple” message every week.

But if you’re going to spend Sunday mornings in a Chinese state church, this song, along with the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, are probably the most useful bits of Chinese to learn first.
tspm_choir
《主在圣殿中》 is the Chinese version of the 1872 hymn “The Lord is in His Holy Temple (Quam Dilecta)” by George F. Root (1820-1895) and based on Habakkuk 2:20. It’s sung by the choir as the call to worship (i.e. the “everyone quiet down we’re starting now” song). Usually the congregation just listens, but it’s musically interesting and you might want to sing along, doctrinal shortcomings notwithstanding. ;)

《主在圣殿中》
主在圣殿中 / zhǔ zài shèngdiàn zhōng
主在圣殿中 / zhǔ zài shèngdiàn zhōng
普天下的人 / pǔtiānxiàde rén
在主面前都应当肃静 / zài zhǔ miànqián dōu yīngdāng sùjìng
肃静 肃静 / sùjìng sùjìng
应当肃静 / yīngdāng sùjìng
阿们 / āmen

Original:
The Lord is in His holy temple,
the Lord is in His holy temple;
Let all the earth keep silence,
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
Keep silence, keep silence before Him.
tspm_chinglish

Chinese state church Sunday school Lord’s Prayer (video)

The cute last few seconds of the 7-year-old-and-under Sunday school class at the Chinese state church we attend on Sunday mornings (the very end is the best part!):

(It’s a YouTube video, so you’ll need a VPN in China.)

Learn the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed in Chinese here.

Making Christmas Chinese: “a yellow Christmas for yellow skin”

Since so many of our Christmas traditions are only two or three generations old anyway, why not make Christmas yellow?

A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
A yellow yellow yellow miracle will appear
A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Oh! A yellow Christmas for yellow skin

ChineseChristmasNativity

Could Christmas ever become Chinese? It’s complicated. For starters: What does that question even mean? And then there’s Christmas’ thorny and conflicted association with Western culture and imperialism, which this translated article lays it out well enough:

…we have a particularly strong feeling that Christianity is a foreign religion.

…sometimes Christmas faces an embarrassing situation in China nowadays. In the eyes of some Chinese, Christmas is like a white wedding dress, which is Western. When Christmas comes, the whole society is filled a with strong commercial atmosphere.

…Christmas is a symbol of Western cultural invasion. For the vast majority of non-Christians in China, Christianity is only related to Christianity and shopping. As a result, Christmas has been resisted in China several times in recent years. With the spread of the internet, the trend of resistance is intensifying.

Ten Ph.Ds from ten well-known China’s universities including Beijing University and Tsinghua University jointly published an article online on Dec 21, 2006, calling for resistance to Christmas.

The topic of celebrating Christmas seems to appear every year… the groups who boycott Christmas range from the ten left-wing cultural scholars to cultural conservatives. Laid-off workers, farmers, young students, and veterans are also included.
[…]
Christmas has become a symbol which stands for overseas culture. Even Chinese who celebrate the festival think so. Few people are concerned about how Chinese Christians should celebrate Christmas under their own cultural background…

But despite the kind of Christmas you’re most likely to witness in China, and the calls to reject Christmas outright, apparently some people are attempting to meaningfully Chinese-ify Christmas. And the attempts are… interesting, at least. The article I quoted above gives two examples. Here’s the first: Yellow Christmas by Huang Guolun (1999):

Yellow Christmas 黄色圣诞

Words & Music: Huang Guolun 词/曲:黄国伦
Performed by Huang Guolun, Zhu Yuexin, Mai Kelin 演唱:黄国伦、朱约信、苏郁修
(Listen: Youtube, Youtube, Xiami, Tudou)

When I was young I dreamed of a snowy Christmas
小的时候 我曾梦想下雪圣诞节
Waiting by my bed for Santa to appear
躲在床边等待圣诞老人的再现
The days went by year after year
日子过了一年又一年 我什麽也没看见
Oh! Childhood fantasies, a White Christmas
OH! 童年幻想 白色圣诞节
White White Christmas White White Christmas

That year I broke up with her in a rainy December
那年与她分手在那下雨十二月
Sitting in church with red-rimmed eyes singing Silent Night
红着眼眶坐在教堂唱着平安夜
The choir sang it again and again, I felt little comfort
诗班唱了一遍又遍 我觉得有点安慰
Oh! Lost love’s dejection, a blue Christmas
OH! 失恋忧鬱 蓝色圣诞节
Blue Blue Christmas Blue Blue Christmas

’til now, I can taste the flavour of Christmas
直到现在 我才尝到圣诞的滋味
The most beautiful gift that God gave to people
那是上帝赐给人间最美的礼物
In the grim reality of this world there’s sunshine shining in the door of my heart
在这冷酷现实的世界 有阳光照心扉
Oh! Golden warmth, a yellow Christmas
OH! 金黄温暖 黄色圣诞节

A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Yellow Yellow 黄色圣诞节
A yellow yellow miracle will appear
Yellow Yellow 奇迹会出现
A yellow yellow yellow Christmas
Yellow Yellow 黄色圣诞节
A yellow Christmas for yellow skin
OH! 黄皮肤的黄色圣诞节

I want to celebrate Christmas, not just dance and spend money
我想庆祝圣诞不是跳舞和花钱
We can invest heartfelt concern into this suffering world
可以付出真心关怀苦难的世界
Just like Jesus without complaint or regret devoted His whole self
就像耶稣无怨无悔 奉献祂一切
Oh! The wonder of God’s love, a yellow Christmas!
OH! 主爱奇妙 黄色圣诞节

ChineseChristmasNativity_006b

That article’s second example appeared on the Chinese internet at the end of 2016 — a Henan folk opera that has Jesus being born in Zhumadian. I went searching and found it being passed around the chinternet as a joke:

“Three days after the winter solstice, little Jesus was born in Zhumadian. The Three Magi brought a box of apples, five jin of pork, and ten jin of flour. Mary had a red egg in her hand and Joseph was busy rolling the dumpling dough. The innkeeper brought a bowl of brown sugar and ginger drink, and called, “Elder Sister, you drink this so you don’t catch a cold.” The Party Secretary of Zhumadian village heard the news, rushed over and said, “Hallelujah! But you still have to get a Temporary Residence Permit.” Just as the sky outside the barn was turning late, everyone in the barn ate apples for peace. Red flags flutter at every home in Zhumadian, and they celebrated Christmas with firecrackers and the cry and clamour of gongs and drums.”
冬至过了那整整三天,小耶稣降生在俺驻马店。三博士送来了一箱苹果,还提着五斤猪肉十斤白面。玛丽亚手里拿着红鸡蛋,约瑟夫忙把饺子皮擀。店老板端来碗红糖姜水,喊一声大嫂你喝了不怕风寒。驻马店村支书闻讯赶来,道一声哈利路亚暂住证还是得办。只见那马棚外天色向晚,马棚里人人都吃苹果求个平安。驻马店家家户户红旗招展,庆圣诞鞭炮齐鸣锣鼓喧天。

Recently I just happened upon a third example, sort of: a creative Nativity rewrite by an ABC pastor in San Fransisco, which points out how the ancient culture in which the Christmas Story occurs resembles Chinese culture more than Western culture: What if Jesus were born in my ancestral village in China?

ChineseChristmasNativity_007b

More about Chinese racial talk and attempts to Sinicize Christmas: