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.

Family and Friends…

Well, we’re back in BC, which means that most of the people we spent time with this week in Texas, we probably won’t see again for another few years. In so many ways, this is exciting…because we’re at the age and stage of life where we and so many of our friends are beginning to spread our wings, move to the places that we’ve dreamed of and prayed about, and see what happens when we get there. It’s a little sad too, because we’ve been blessed with amazing friendships and relationships from our years in T.F.M.C. It seems like there is never quite enough time to spend with anyone, and it’s always hard to say goodbye. We’re exhausted, but so thankful for another week of sharing life together with those that we love. Thanks to all of our friends in T.F.M.C. for being such an encouragement to us, for challenging us to keep growing, for affirming us, and for your prayers. We love all of you so much!

It’s also a little bittersweet to realize that this weekend with my family is the last one we’ll have for a little while. Today, I was holding my 18-month old niece and realized that the next time she sees me, she probably won’t remember me. I snuggled my mom on the couch for a few minutes, soaking up her sweet and gentle presence, and remembering the hours I’ve spent on her lap. I relived another small piece of childhood with my sister while we made our family’s traditional “no-bake” oatmeal cookies. Together, we’re like the SWAT team of no-bake cookie making…a million batches made together have made us an efficient and well-oiled team and while we can make them by ourselves, it works better (and is WAY more fun) to do it together. Over the course of the weekend, I wished that my dad and my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews could be with us…but it was still such a good time. We love you family….thanks for a great weekend, and for all the ways that you love us and support us.

Now we’re off to go camping with Joel’s family somewhere on the coast of BC. We’re bringing lots of books with us, our stunt kites, and NO laptops. We’ll update you sometime next Sunday or Monday when we get back. :)

Airport Ramblings…

While I haven’t written in a while, I seem to have abundantly more spare time on my hands than I had planned for tonight. Due to a conspiracy between the weather and Continental Airlines, Joel and I are trapped at the George Bush “Intercontinental” Airport in Houston, TX until tomorrow morning’s first flight out to Vancouver. So, we’re camped out in front of the Presidents Club, which is the prime location from which to filch the “President’s Club Only” wireless internet signal. If you’re ever stuck in an airport with a laptop, just look around for the President’s Club and see if you can latch onto a smidgen of their signal. Especially if you have HOURS to kill, as we do tonight.

Our flight from Dallas to Houston was interesting…the most turbulent I’ve ever been on. I wondered for a bit if we were actually at Six Flags, in some airplane shaped amusement ride. No…it was a real airplane and we were seated in the very last seats, where we REALLY felt the bumps. The best part was when we hit this HUGE bump and my coffee splashed upwards hitting the ceiling of the aircraft and splattering everywhere. I wish I’d had it on video!!! Surprisingly little of it landed on me, which was a good thing considering the number of hours I’m going to be wearing these clothes.

Edited to add…we also just saw security arrest some lady. Not exactly sure what was going on, but she was definitely agitated. As they handcuffed her, she was yelling something about Chop-suey, Pakistanis, Japan, her boyfriend and a poodle. Should be an interesting night, to say the least!

Back in the FMC

After two red-eye flights and three hours of driving, we’re here. Where is here? A bumber sticker at the local flea market says, “…the town you can’t afford to leave.” It’s 110 American degrees, which I’m sure is something obscene in Celsius. They haven’t had rain in about five weeks. But the university campus is also covered in migrating butterflies; we walked through clouds of them today.

On the way into town we stopped at Dan and Brenda’s and had a great three hours or so catching up. It’s amazing how you can just pick up conversation with some people after a while and it’s like you were never apart. Them and our conversation reminded me of how incredibly blessed we are to have all kinds of people whom we love and respect on our side. Dan and Brenda live outside of town on some land in the country, and they’ve started building an African village compound… huts and all that, complete with goats and donkeys and I think soon some ducks.

Same with Kelly and Houston (re: the conversation, not the goats and huts). Houston and I have some shared history involving goats (and huts), African village-market-quality knives, and a rather messy “cultural learning experience.” But anyway we’re staying with Kelly and Houston until Friday, when we’ll head to Dallas to see Jessica’s mom and sister before heading back to Canada on Sunday.

One whole week to enjoy lots of friends in between some meetings – sounds pretty good to me!

8 years of college but still learning the hard way

Today I (Joel) received a distinctly West Texas education. You’d think after 8 years in college I’d know how to answer this question:

“What should you do when it’s 40 degrees C outside, you’re driving your ’77 Nova at 45mph with the windows down because it’s short trip and the a/c takes a while to kick in, and you see (and smell) a large hairy carcass formerly belonging to a now-unindentifiable animal dead-centre in your lane 10 meters ahead? It has not yet been flattened. Should you:

a) swerve around it, like all the drivers behind you who know better

b) speed up and try to flatten it, just for kicks

c) try to straddle it, driving directly over it so that (in theory) your wheels pass by safely on either side, even though the suspension on your car gave out years ago and you already ride mere inches above the ground?”

I opted for “c”, and the results were… instantaneous. Even if my aim wasn’t off and I hadn’t nailed it with the driverside tire, we ride so low that it would probably have got hooked on the underside anyway. We had to smell that thing all the way to our small group meeting and back. People like my younger sisters already think our car is nasty – I’m afraid I can’t really argue with them anymore, at least until that stuff cooks off in the Texas heat.