What’s in a name

Several years ago I traveled to China on behalf of the Bible League, a ministry I worked for at the time. The trip was an opportunity for 34 Western Christians to:

  1. become familiar with the Bible League’s ministry,
  2. enlarge our understanding of the worldwide Church, and
  3. provide Chinese Christians with Chinese Bibles, which are in short supply throughout China.

In addition, I served as a reporter on the trip, taking notes and writing reports that could be shared with donors, so they could see both the need for and the results of their financial support.

It was a wonderful trip. When I read my trip report even now, years later, I laugh and cry and feel the weight of the suitcases all over again.

Training

A powerful part of this trip was the 36-hour train ride from Beijing to Hong Kong. Riding the rails for 36 hours gives you plenty of time to socialize with fellow passengers, and we took advantage of the opportunity to communicate as best we could. I had a Chinese-English translator book that helped us carry on conversations consisting of basic facts like, “I have one brother” and “I live in Guangzhou.” It was interesting to communicate without words, to simply point at characters in order to convey meaning.

We did have one Chinese-speaking man in our group (one of the tour leaders). I’m sure he was overwhelmed with our team’s various requests for translation help, but he was very gracious throughout. You could see his compassion and earnestness in all his interactions. Most of the conversations he was having were about the Bible, and Jesus, and Buddha, and the meaning of life. I listened in on one exchange with a young woman who had received a Chinese New Testament from someone in the group. He pointed out a number of significant verses, and she read them thoughtfully and asked some penetrating questions: “How do you worship this God?” “How do you pray, and when?” I don’t know if she made any religious decisions during that train ride, but I did notice she was still reading that New Testament a long while later.

I heard later that one of the conversations our translator had was with a man who did then decide to become a Christian. It is common practice in China for a new convert to choose a new, Christian name to signify his new life. The translator asked this new convert what Christian name he might choose. The man wasn’t sure. He mentioned he would be the first Christian in his family and in his village. So the translator suggested Peter as his Christian name, Peter being one of Christ’s first followers and “the Rock” of the Christian church. The man agreed, and he was christened Peter. It was only then that we learned he had a very common surname in China: Pan. So somewhere in China today is a church leader named Peter Pan!

Faith

I consider it an honor to be in the same Christian family as people like Peter Pan. If you read last week’s blog, you know I’ve spent the week wondering what small things I can do to “take it up a notch” in terms of my faith. But for Peter Pan, his very decision to become a Christian is an act of faith braver than anything I’ll ever do. He likely suffered ridicule, beatings, fines, job loss, and/or discrimination when he returned home and revealed his new faith. Maybe he was run out of town. Maybe he was killed. Maybe he ended up renouncing his faith. I don’t know. But I admire him for being willing to risk it all for a God he met on a train, in the pages of a Book given to him by a stranger who became a brother.

Perhaps Peter is the perfect name for this new Christian. After all, Peter is the disciple who impulsively braved the waves and walked on water (Matthew 14:22ff), who drew a sword to defend his Lord (John 18:10), who recognized early that Jesus was worth following (John 6:68). Peter is a model of the kind of “notched-up” faith I want for his namesake, Peter Pan. And for myself.

But he’s also a model of the kind of failing faith I’m more often guilty of. The faith that got Peter out of the boat quickly melted when he saw the waves. And perhaps it was fear rather than faith that prompted him to draw his sword. And though he pledged Jesus his loyalty, Peter is just as famous for his three denials when the going got tough. Peter’s faith story is a mixture of glory and failure.

Just like mine.

In the end, it’s not the size or intensity of my faith that matters, but the One in whom I place it. And I thank God for that.

“Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” Psalm 115:1

 

From China to Glenwood: adventures in diversity

I’m thinking about China today. I’m thinking about Glenwood, Illinois, too. And the two places are related in my mind because they both represent rich cultural opportunities for me.

Beautiful, fun diversity

I’ve spent this past week preparing for my church’s Taste of Reconciliation, which takes place in Glenwood tomorrow at 5:00pm. The Taste is an annual event that celebrates the beautiful diversity of my church’s congregation and the wonderful variety of churches in Glenwood and surrounding communities.

I love the Taste because it takes the edge off race relations. It makes it fun to be different—the more variety, the better! The more experiences, the richer the evening is for you. “Oh, you’re serving fried plantain? Ok, I’ll try some! …Hmm. Not my favorite, but thanks for sharing it!” No hard feelings. No big deal.

Breaking bread together can be a great way break down walls—as long as you divest the food of some (not all) of its emotional power. When I eat your fried plantain, I appreciate that it holds childhood memories of Nigeria for you, and I love hearing your stories about it. At the same time, you recognize that plantain holds no memories for me, and you don’t take it personally when I don’t fall in love with the fruit itself. You appreciate that I appreciate your memories of the food, if not the food itself, for it is those shared memories, not the plant or its preparation, that are important to our relationship.

A willingness to laugh

Breaking bread together also breaks down walls if you go into it with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to laugh at yourself. When I was in China about 15 years ago, I was blessed to travel with a number of people who relished new experiences. One evening, five of us met for dinner in the hotel before a meeting later that night. This hotel was not a typical tourist spot, and none of the waitresses spoke any English—and we spoke even less Chinese! The staff did manage to round up some menus that had English subtitles, so we could point to the dishes we wanted.

We didn’t realize as we were ordering that each dish was enough for about seven people. Jason’s soup came out first. He thought he had ordered just a cup for himself, so his eyes bugged out when the waitress brought out a half-gallon bowl and set it down in front of him. When she began ladling out some for each of us, we began to understand.

Glenwood and China
Fried carp with sweet and sour sauce (photo source: China Tours)
Each time they brought out another dish, they would set it in the middle of the table, so we were never exactly sure which dish it was. “Who ordered this?” we’d ask each other. “Is this the Buddha’s Delight? What is this?” But when my dish came out, there was no mistaking what it was. I had ordered the fried carp with sweet and sour sauce. What they brought out was a huge fish—head, eyes, tail, and all—elegantly arranged in a pool of brown sauce. We all howled with laughter when they set it down in front of me.

Now, this experience could have been much different if my fellow travelers and I had gone into it with a sense of entitlement or frustration rather than a sense of humor and adventure. Yes, we were hungry, we were tired, we were out of our element. But we enjoyed ourselves. And we ate well. In spite of its unexpected appearance, my fried carp was delicious.

To be fair, the staff at the hotel restaurant could also have handled the situation differently. I suppose they could have been offended that we didn’t speak their language, that we didn’t know what we wanted, that we were louder than anyone else in the room. For all I know, fried carp may be a delicacy deserving of much more respect than we gave it, but our hosts were gracious and patient. In spite of their initial befuddlement, they worked hard to meet our needs, and gradually they came to appreciate the comedy of the occasion, laughing at our “oohs” and “aahs” each time they set a new dish on the table. They helped us pronounce the Chinese names of our entrées, and I think they appreciated our attempts to eat with chopsticks.

All this to say, breaking bread together can be a rich opportunity to break down walls. It is no accident that my church’s Taste of Reconciliation is both a worship service and a food fest: by giving people opportunities to rub shoulders with each other over gyros, gumbo, egg rolls, and pierogi before the worship service, we prepare them to meet God in new ways, and to find it fun instead of frustrating.

A spirit of adventure

This will be, I believe, my fifth Taste of Reconciliation in Glenwood. As far as I know, we’ve never had a plantain dish there before. But I love the fact that Yefunde is bringing it this year to represent her Nigerian culture. I love the excitement I heard in her voice when she called to tell me about it. I love that even though this is her very first Taste of Reconciliation, she’s taking the initiative—her enthusiasm is contagious! I believe Yefunde is embracing this year’s Taste with the spirit of adventure that makes this celebration such a success!

The Taste of Reconciliation has been hosted by Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois, every summer for nearly a decade, and everyone is welcome. Just show up with an appetite as large as your sense of adventure!

Related posts:

Celebrating diversity—in Glenwood, Illinois

TasteOfReconcilation72Where do sweet potato pie, Ukrainian kasha, Swedish meatballs, Italian ice, southern cornbread, Chinese eggrolls, and store-bought cupcakes blend in delicious harmony? Where do opera sopranos, gospel choirs, Korean soloists, and children’s choruses mix in harmonious diversity? Where do worshippers join hearts, lift hands, and rub shoulders with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes? At the annual Taste of Reconciliation hosted by Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois.

Living Springs is my church, and each year approximately 500 people descend upon the grounds for a celebration similar to the Taste of Chicago, but with a deeper purpose. Each Taste of Reconciliation is a festivity of different types of food, different types of people, different types of music—all in celebration of the God who is Father to the entire human family. The event is an oasis of hope and fun in an area where racial conflicts are often one wrong glance away from flaring up.

Pastor Chris Spoor is the former senior pastor at Living Springs. Semi-retired now, he continues to serve in a variety of roles, and the Taste of Reconciliation remains an event he is highly involved with. In preparation for this year’s Taste, Pastor Chris sent a letter to other local pastors, saying:

“Throughout my years as a pastor in the Illiana area, I have had many conversations with church leaders struggling to discern how best to serve in neighborhoods that are ‘changing.’ Let me invite you to an event that will renew your hope, enlarge your vision, and refresh your soul—the Taste of Reconciliation, hosted by Living Springs Community Church.”

If you are in the Glenwood area (it’s south of Chicago, Illinois) on Sunday evening, July 26, 2009, stop in at the Taste of Reconciliation. Beginning at 5:00pm you’ll be able to sample foods from 20–30 different cultures—Dutch food and soul food, yes, but also Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Greek, Mediterranean, Ukrainian, Argentine, Polish, Korean, Swedish, and American dishes.

Stick around for the worship service that begins at 6:00pm, a service that reflects the promise of Revelation 7:9. Choirs, soloists, praise teams, readers, dancers, and preachers from different cultures will all lead us in heartfelt praise—some expressions familiar, some less so, but all God-focused.

To view photos and videos of the Taste of Reconciliation from years past, visit www.tasteofreconciliation.com. Or contact me directly for more information. Post a comment to this blog, or use any of the links below.

Hope to see you at the Taste!

Cambodia remains

donor report
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

In a cardboard box in my basement, wrapped in a small plastic bag, is a human bone. A fragment. It shocks me when I see it, even though I am the one who put it there.

I tucked it away, out of sight, not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember it. I didn’t want it to lose its power. For a while, I had kept it on my desk, next to my Mac. Doing so seemed somewhat disrespectful, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead, for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the shock wore off. So I put the fragment away.

Every once in a while I’ll hear a news story about Cambodia, or a mention of the Khmer Rouge, or a reference to “The Killing Fields,” and I’ll remember my trip to Cambodia more than 10 years ago. I’ll think about the plastic-wrapped bone in my basement, and my eyes will well up again.

Trying to understand

It was a powerful trip, full of life and death, hope and despair. During the weeks before leaving, whenever I would tell people I was going to Cambodia, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of “Cambodia? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not really safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it, “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the experience by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped within the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

To this day, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects. The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals and businessmen of Cambodian society; the remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery; cities were bombed; and a lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1985, and Cambodia remains scarred and crippled today. There has been very little development in the past 20 years. Streets are unpaved and rutted, buildings are worn, and the people seem worn as well.

Smelling the fear

Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo of each body before burying it in a plot next to the building. Those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making each room a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

In a separate building are displayed some of the torture devices the Khmer Rouge used. The perverted creativity these people used to kill their victims is almost incomprehensible. Seeing the different tools and machines they invented, you sense that these killings were sport to them.

I kept trying to understand this place, kept trying to wrap my mind around the reasons people would do this to other people. And I couldn’t. Whatever political or ideological motivations Pol Pot had, they are simply inadequate to explain why. As I looked at the photos, read the history, smelled the fear and death in the air, I kept coming back to the question, How could this happen? No answer seemed satisfactory.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

Tuol Sleng was a place where many of the city people—educated business or government people—were killed. After lunch we drove out to one of the killing fields where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. Again, the site is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a number of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each of these large pits was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

That’s where I found the bone that is now in my basement. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that had decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had known so little about these atrocities beforehand made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets, victims of mines that still dot the countryside. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and older generations have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in our Cambodian office. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother—killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to interrupt our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of a group of tourists who were mainly oblivious to her country’s plight.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang a song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.
(Gaither)

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth the living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

And that glistening hope is what we are working to share throughout Cambodia. Throughout the world.

Is there any greater calling than that?