Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of China and Church - Easter Reflections

{Scarlett here}

Yesterday I read this article in the New York Times. It's about how members of a Christian church in China were detained for trying to hold an Easter service in a public square.

This breaks my heart. I can't imagine not being able to go to church on Easter Sunday, the most special of all Sundays, and I am humbled and worried to know that Christians on the other side of the world are probably still in jail for exercising a right that I often take for granted. It takes a lot of courage to believe in your Savior so much that you will willingly risk jail time to worship Him.

After reading this, I started to think of how lucky I am to be able to worship freely, and how sad I would be if I would ever have to miss worship on Easter Sunday. Then I remembered that one year I had. It was the Easter I spent in China.

For most people around me that day, it was an ordinary Sunday, and a work day for me. The season had changed; they always seemed to change so quickly and abruptly in China. One day it was bleak and cold, and the next day winds swept through bringing lots of pollen and dirt flying through the air and all of a sudden, lime green leaves began to sprout on the trees. I was teaching English at a private language school and the weekends were my busiest days.  The school administrator marked the occasion by bringing in a box of hot cross buns from the bakery to put in the teacher's lounge. I appreciated the gesture, but was really bummed that I was the only one out of all of my coworkers and friends who attached any religious significance to the day, and who mourned not being able to be in church. I heard that there was actually a Christian church in the Chinese city where I lived, but it was controlled by the Communist party. Even if I had Sundays off, I don't think I would have been comfortable worshiping there. (The reason Christianity is suppressed in China is because nothing is supposed to be higher than the Party.)

I was in China for 7 months, which is the longest stretch I've ever gone without ever going to church. It's interesting to try to figure out what being a Christian means in an environment like that when for all of your life, being a Christian has meant, if nothing else, going to church on Sunday. I'd like to say that I figured out, in the absence of my usual Sunday morning ritual, how to extend extra compassion, grace and love to my fellow man to make up for not being able to worship as usual. That I filled that empty cup with other good things.

The truth is, throughout the latter months of my time in China, it was all I could do to hang on to any sense of inner peace for myself, much less try to extend it to others. I read my Daily Guideposts nightly, which I think was my saving grace. In some way, that book made me feel connected to my Christian brothers and sisters even if they were a world away. As far as being able to discuss religion with anyone, when my coworkers--the only ones in that whole country of 1.3 billion I could speak English with--asked me about my faith, if I prayed, if I went to church, I answered them honestly, and my responses were usually met with derision. They made fun of me for so many things, for being from Texas ("small-town redneck" and "backwards"), for being an American ("sheltered know nothings who try to run the whole world but don't know anything about it"), for refusing to disrespect George W. Bush even though I have no love lost for that man but will not insult my own president in a foreign country, for not denouncing the Iraq war because my friends were fighting in it ("imperialist"), for trying to acknowledge the 4th of July (they tore down the red white and blue sign I put on my door). For all of those insults, they really hurt my feelings. But when they tried to make fun of me for being a Christian, it didn't hurt my feelings in the slightest bit. It just made me pity them. I suppose that's something.

When you get right down to it, the blessing of going to church isn't so much in the polished pews, the dress clothes, or even the beautiful music and thought-provoking sermons, though I love all of that. It's getting to be around people who believe what you do, who support you in struggles and who share in your joys and who understand the deep peace of knowing that God still speaks. Not having that in China made something inside my heart shrivel just a little bit. My faith didn't dwindle, but my joy did. (Thankfully whatever shrank has since been repaired.)

Back to those brave people who only wanted the joy of worshiping freely with other Christians on Easter morning. They have my respect, my sympathy and my prayers. I hope that if they're in jail they will soon be released. I hope that the day will come soon when they can worship freely and in peace.

Blessings to you,

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