Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Writing again??

So I don't think many people are still following this blog, especially now that we have Facebook, which admittedly, is one of the reasons my blog started to peter out. Increased privacy, greater engagement, friends not needing to sign in and type weird codes just to leave a comment: all bonuses. But on Facebook, I was left with another problem, who exactly was I writing for? Did I want certain people to see it? Would I be spamming my non-Christian friends with faith-related content all the time? Because now that I've been in Taiwan for almost 10 years, many things that were once new and notable are quite routine. And I was feeling a desire to move into more deeper reflections, but not really sure how or where to do that. Plus there was the monster of people-pleasing out there whispering that it was too dangerous. I wouldn't be able to control others' reactions. I wouldn't be able to cater my words to every possible audience at once. And so I started to feel crippled.
Around the time I started to reflect on the people-pleaser in me, I noticed my friend Drake was posting some pretty cool stuff on a blog. And in fact, it looked like it was a pretty cool collective of bloggers writing about pretty cool stuff. So I decided to take the plunge and write a guest post. You can read it here. That became a commitment to be a regular contributor. So I'm trying. I'm forcing myself to write more, and be real with my thoughts, whether I get negative feedback, positive feedback, or no feedback at all.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Reason to Remember

This past Sunday, my local church put on a Tomb sweeping service. It’s the first our church has ever done, and the first I have ever attended. And I found it to be deeply meaningful. Growing up in a Lutheran church for a while, and being part of this generation that seems to be moving away from consumerism and entertainment-driven worship and toward liturgy and a deeper connection to past, future, and community, I found it refreshing to be a part of this service. Now for those unfamiliar with the holiday, Taiwan celebrates Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 5. It’s a day off when families traditionally visit the family plot where their ancestors are buried, and, literally, sweep or clean it up. Cemeteries in Taiwan do not, to my knowledge, have groundskeepers or other employees. Thus it is the family’s duty to make sure grave sites are maintained. Traditionally this would be accompanied with burning incense or ghost money, making food offerings, and prayers to the ancestors for blessings.
Personally, I love the fact that this holiday often falls around Easter time, as I think it can take on special meaning for believers. When I teach about the Easter story, I may even say that on the third day the disciples went to 掃墓, or sweep/visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find that He wasn’t there.

Understandably, believers in Taiwan can face a dilemma when it come to celebrating traditional holidays with pressure from their families to honor customs that may go against the teaching of the Bible. This is the very issue my church wanted to address. How can Christians still honor their families while not participating in idol worship during Tomb sweeping and other Chinese festivals? The pastor answered that in his sermon, and I’ll summarize below, but first I want to detail the service with a few reflections.

The service
The service started of like a typical Sunday morning with a worship set, including one song mentioning the resurrection and Amazing Grace. The scripture reading came from Psalm 116:12-16 which was read as a congregation:

“What can I offer the Lord for all he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and praise the Lord ’s name for saving me.
I will keep my promises to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die.
O Lord, I am your servant; yes, I am your servant,
born into your household; you have freed me from my chains.“

After that, there was a candle-lighting ceremony where the worship leader talked about the meaning, and then the people passed the light to each other. We had received the candles in an envelope when we entered the sanctuary. Once the candles were lit, there was a responsive reading. The basic gist was remembering our ancestors and being thankful that they gave us life, and being thankful to be part of their family line. In some ways, it reminded me of Christmas Eve candlelight services, but I thought it was a really neat way to visualize, as we symbolically passed the flame to each other, the way our ancestors have passed their lives and stories onto us.

Memorial Cards
After blowing out the candles, we were instructed to fill out a memorial card, which was also included in the envelope. It had us reflect on a loved one who has passed away, writing down a memory and talking about something we learned from their legacy. Once we were finished, they had trees at the front and back of the room for people to hang their cards on.
A few were selected to be read to the congregation as an expression of thankfulness for the effect they had on us and acknowledging their contribution to our lives. That was immediately followed by a moment of silence. It was understandably an emotional time for some. I reflected that just as we hung these memories on a tree, our savior, Jesus, was also hung on a tree. In my mind, there was some symbolism of us giving our pain and loss to Him, and remembering that He also gave His life for us.

This next part is a little hard for me to explain, but imagine a communion service, but with only the cup. Instead of wine, it was ‘water’ (actually tea) in the cups, and no bread was passed out. There were no restrictions on whether or not you were baptized; everyone was invited to partake. As the cups were being passed out, the pastor explained water represents that we all come from the same source and are united as humans who are born, live, die. It also reminds us that just as we need water to live, God is our source of life, and we are all created by Him. We drank together of that cup, united in our humanity, birth, life, losses, and hope.

Comparing experiences
Then it was time for the sermon, where the pastor shared some of his own experience of growing up in a family that participated in “bai bai” or a Taoist-based form of traditional ancestor worship. People do this for many reasons, including desire for blessing, a fear of being cursed, and simply out of habit or obedience.
He noted that in many respects, this ancestor worship is done out of a heart of love for family: a wish for blessings. But for him, the question was there – my grandparents say the same thing every time - do the ancestors hear? Do they eat the food offered? What does it really mean? When he became a Christian, he faced strong opposition from his family, especially as the oldest son. It was supposed to be his responsibility to keep up the tradition. A common view here is that if you don’t participate in “bai bai” you are saying you don't care about your family, you don't acknowledge who you are, you are showing disrespect for your parents, and you will bring bad luck to your relatives. In Taiwan, people may even be disowned for converting to Christianity.

He asked the question of why our ancestors would want to curse us, if they were our own flesh and blood. He also reminded us that our ancestors were human; they don’t in fact have the power to curse OR to bless us. That power lies with God alone. He emphasized, and I think that this is SO important: Obedience and respect for your family, and for those who came before is GOOD but worshipping them is not the only way to show that!
He then tied it back to the Bible, and talked about how important genealogies were, noting that a few other options for observing tomb sweeping festival could be to read out the name list of your relatives, here and gone, or to share memories of the things we still know about them. In the end, he asked, isn’t it more meaningful to love and respect them while they're alive than to prepare a banquet in their name after they're dead?

Final Thoughts

I loved the symbolism of the service and both the ancient church-ness AND Chinese-ness of it. I think it’s important for people to honor and respect both their families and cultures when they come to know the Lord. In fact, it’s more important than ever to do it then, to show God’s love.  These kinds of issues need to be approached with love and sensitivity, instead of a right/wrong or us/them polarization. I hope that this was helpful to new believers in our church who may be struggling with how to be a Christian witness in their families without making them feel rejected. Idol worship is real in Taiwan. Superstition informs behavior in the daily lives of so many. But as Christians, we know something precious. We know that death is not something to fear, because the one we follow has already overcome the grave.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

a lesson in contrasts and a matter of balance

I was helping out a friend this weekend who works at a Catholic school here in Taiwan, as she was asked to undertake the difficult task of translating legal/doctrinal statements from English into Chinese. To make matters worse, they were originally written in Italian! But the interesting thing about it was how the document was relating the vow of poverty that nuns take to the financial administration of an institution. The idea is that if our own Savior emptied himself and took on the nature of a servant, if he had no place to lay his head, and if the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, shouldn't followers of Christ also choose to live a certain kind of lifestyle? To our modern way of thinking the idea of renouncing your rights and/or possessions, much less committing to never acquiring anything except as you plan to offer it for the good of the community, well it seems outdated, impossible, and maybe even crazy! 

The next morning I went to a church where the speaker spent a great part of the sermon expounding on how much God wants to bless his followers with health and....prosperity. And this is something I've been hearing a LOT in the churches I've visited recently. God wants to bless your business. God is a God of abundance; ask you and you will receive. None of this is wrong...right? Yet somehow it doesn't always sit well with me. It's really easy for me to write a church or preacher off as "health and wealth" and not want to listen to anything else they have to say. 

I worry that in our desperation to get people into church, we want to make promises that God himself never did. A reading of the gospel seems to show that Jesus wasn't nearly as eager to attract followers if they were half-hearted, even turning away people who had seemingly reasonable excuses for delayed commitment (I'm just going to go say goodbye to my family, then I'll come follow you....). I worry that those hearing this prosperity gospel are the very embodiment of the seed that falls among the thorns, who receive the message with joy (who doesn't want the God of the universe on their side? Healing their illness, helping them find good parking spots, etc....), but are soon choked out by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth... I want to see true discipleship happening instead. 

The Jesus we are called to follow is the Jesus who said this:

Mark 8:34“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?

In contrast to today's church, He typically didn't have a lot of good things to say about wealth:

Mark 10:17 As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. 19 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”24 This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God.25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
26 The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
27 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”

So does that mean we should all be taking vows of poverty? Are the promises of riches only for heaven? Can't we use wealth to bless others? In my reaction against the seemingly false teaching of the prosperity gospel, I didn't finish reading the passage, I'll underline the part that gave me pause:

28 Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. 31 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

In other translations it is even clearer - a hundred times more blessing in this present age (along with persecution lest we forget), and in the age to come, eternal life. The book of Proverbs and many other parts of the Old Testament are also clear that on principle, those who follow God's way are likely to be rewarded, whether it is the logical outcome of living wisely, or as blessings in response to obedience. 

A student in my bible study shared what I think is a profound truth: all of the things we long for to provide us security in life (money, power, friends etc) things we NEED to ensure we have a comfortable life are actually an attempt to fill a deeper need for eternal life. 
So where does that leave us? Are we to pursue blessings? Are we to expect them? 
BUT we don't want to be like ungrateful children at Christmastime. We should never let our desire for these things outweigh our desire for the Giver. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Things I would have tweeted last week if I used Twitter #newpost

I have a few friends in my social media network who never fail to impress me with their prolific use of #hashtags and I can admit to googling them and one point and trying to figure out why on earth I was suddenly seeing these weird metasubliminal messages on peoples' posts.... so on my way to embracing the hashtag, here are a few thoughts:

Monday: Spent 20 minutes at the acupuncturist with 8 needles stuck in my legs. #ouch #notreally #justpsychological #didntlook

Tuesday: Bought new socks from a truck on the side of the road. #myglamouroustaiwanlife

Wednesday: Took off my sweater only to realize my shirt was on inside out.
#adultlifefail #gettingold

Thursday: Had homemade oatmeal with peanut butter chips and craisins for breakfast. And lunch.
#comfortfood #yummy

Friday: Reading Isaiah, I suddenly want to rename my bible study class "Okes of Righteousness." #inspiration #suchanerd

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New exercises

Check this out if you're looking for a low-impact but still sweat-inducing (for me at least) workout. The lady who is leading it is in her mid-40s and I believe the mother of 2. She looks great! The workout is all in Korean, but that doesn't really matter, since it's easy enough to follow, plus they count everything in English. Nice for cold rainy days when I don't want to go out for my walk but still want to get moving!
It's also been nice this week since I hurt my foot after falling on a slippery Taipei sidewalk last weekend. I got acupuncture on Monday (yes, me...who is notoriously needle-phobic, I just made sure not to look at them, meaning my eyes were closed the whole time....), and it did help a lot. Cost me about $5 dollars for the consult, acupuncture session, and some herbal medicine. Awesome.