Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Turns out "judge" doesn't mean "everyone goes to hell"

The Justice League. Image source.

Psalm 98 is a celebration, the whole earth singing and praising God. And why, exactly, is the whole earth singing and praising God? "...for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity."

So basically, EVERYONE, HOORAY!!!!!! Because God will judge.

Now that seems a little odd, right? Shouldn't judging be a scary thing, about punishment and "everyone goes to hell"?

So I looked up all the Old Testament references with the words "judge", "judges", and "judged" to see just what the bible means exactly when it talks about God judging. (I removed the times it used "judge" or "judges" as a noun. And this is using the NIV bible.)

Okay I broke everything down into categories and here's what I got:

Judging "between" people (15 verses, 11 of which are about God judging)

For example, in 1 Samuel 24:12, David tells Saul, "May the Lord judge between you and me." This is when Saul is trying to kill David, and David does not try to kill Saul. Basically, David is saying he's right, Saul's wrong, and God should be the one to back David up on that.

Using the term "between" when talking about judgment means that there are multiple parties and the judge will decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. So, that seems reasonable. Not like the scary "everyone goes to hell" thing.

Judging a thing (2 verses)

Yeah this one's not important, there were just some examples in Leviticus 27:12 and 27:14 where the priest judges the value of some object.

Punishment (25 verses, 12 of which are from Ezekiel. Odd.)

In these examples, the word "judge" is used when talking about punishment. Take a look:

1 Samuel 3:13- God tells Samuel he will punish Eli: "For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them."

Ezekiel 7:8 "I am about to pour out my wrath on you and spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices."

These are mostly the scary kind of "judging," which fits in with the "everyone goes to hell" definition. However, there are a few cases where someone is asking God to judge someone else- presumably meaning that the first person believes himself to be innocent and deserving of God's help:

In 1 Chronicles 12:17, David says to his new fans, "But if you have come to betray me to my enemies when my hands are free from violence, may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you."

In 2 Chronicles 20:12, King Jehoshaphat prays for help against an enemy army: "Our God, will you not judge them?"

Helping those who deserve it (5 verses, all from Psalms and Proverbs)

3 of these references are about human judges, and 2 are about God:

Psalm 7:8 "Let the Lord judge the peoples. Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High."

Psalm 76:8-9 "From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet— when you, God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land."

Interesting that "judge" can mean "save." The "everyone goes to hell" understanding says it's love that saves people from justice. Justice can never save.

Judgment which is celebrated (4 verses)

These examples weren't so clear about what they meant by "judge," but they were clear that it was something to be massively celebrated. (All of these examples were about God doing the judging.) Here are a few:

1 Chronicles 16:33 "Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth."

Psalm 98:8-9 "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity."

3 out of 4 are about the earth celebrating. The odd one out, about people celebrating, is Psalm 96:10 "Say among the nations, 'The Lord reigns.' The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity."

Punishing some, helping others (9 verses)

Some verses which talk about judging include both lifting up the weak and bringing down the powerful:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 "He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed."

Psalm 75:7 "It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another."

Isaiah 11:4 "but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked."

In other words, some people deserve better than what they have in reality, and some people deserve worse. God's judgment will correct that.

Making decisions like a judge (10 verses, only 3 of which are about God judging)

Mostly these were about human judges, like this example from Leviticus 19:15, "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

For these ones, "judge" is pretty neutral, it's just the job that a judge does. Even in the verses about God, it doesn't say whether the judging is for punishment or to help those who deserve it. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:17, "I said to myself, 'God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.'"

In conclusion:

According to the Old Testament, "judge" means bringing down those who are powerful and corrupt, and raising up the poor and oppressed. For me, raised as an evangelical Christian with the understanding the "judge" and "justice" mean everyone deserves to go to hell and you can only get out of it if Jesus covers you with his Jesus-ness, this is kind of a surprising conclusion.

I'd be interested to see if the New Testament agrees with this use of the word "judge."

God's judgment is good news for the world. It's something that makes sense. But that doesn't mean we're all off the hook. Take a look at your life: are you benefiting from others' oppression? Are you enjoying advantages that your brothers and sisters in the human race do not have access to? Are you using what you have to help those in need? Because the bible has some things to say about that.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 98. To read other people's posts, click here: Singing a New Song.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blogaround

Image source.

1. Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel (posted April 15) "This view of Matthew’s occupation does not cast Matthew, a tax collector, as someone deeply familiar with Jewish Law or with extensive religious training. The problem is, however, that the Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish out of the canonical Gospels."

2. Good Friday Means Nothing Without Easter Sunday (posted April 18) "In particular, today’s Christian has a tendency to reduce the Gospel to Good Friday. The result? Grace is also reduced to one theme: atonement—to Christ shouldering and then reversing the wrath of God."

3. Haha. This picture:

Image source.

4. Holy Saturday (posted April 18) "Seriously, just look around. Does it look like the meek are inheriting the earth?"

5. When Every Touch Is Sexualized (posted April 19) "That is how incredibly significant physical touch can be to those in the purity culture. Touch between unmarried individuals of opposite genders is not only forbidden but also, as a result, thoroughly sexualized."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter in Chinese

Image source.

Happy Easter! 复活节快乐!

This morning I got up super-early because if church is totally packed every week, well, you can imagine Easter Sunday. I put on a nice skirt with flowers because, you guys, it's Easter! (Yeah but Chinese people don't really dress up for church. Everyone else was just wearing pants and a coat. The church doesn't have decent heating so you keep your coat on.)

So I took the bus and arrived at the church an hour before the service. Wow, perfect, there's still a lot of space! Or so I thought. In reality, I had stumbled across the secret kingdom of seat-savers. Every pew had 1 person and 2 bibles and 3 purses. I guess everyone sent their friend to church an hour early to save seats.

Ridiculous.

The back half of the church had a lot of non-saved (unsaved?) seats, so I sat down. The other people in my pew had found a mysterious umbrella and hypothesized that someone may be using it to save a seat, so every time another person came by and asked, they were like "Maybe there's someone in this seat, we found this umbrella, we don't know whose it is." (in Chinese of course)

I have to say, I'm totally not a fan of giving such respect to seat-savers, especially those who may not even exist! My opinion is, if you're not here, TOO BAD. (Readers, what do you think?)

SO ANYWAY. A lot of people pray before church starts, and I looked up the hymns for today and started reading over them. (While listening to speculation over the umbrella.)

Half an hour before the service, a huge influx of people came in- including all the seat-savers. Also, one of the church staff went up front and led us in singing the songs for the day, plus some extra ones also related to Easter. We sang the Chinese versions of "Up from the grave he arose" and "Christ the Lord is risen today." Sweet!

"Up from the grave he arose"

Finally church started. A pastor announced from the front, "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life.'" That's different- usually they start church with "Brothers and sisters, peace to you."

We all stood up and sang a song about Jesus and how he's alive, and then the pastor prayed. Then we sat down and did another song. And then it was time for the Scripture reading.

The passages for today were all from Luke and John- you know, the end part where [spoiler warning] Jesus comes back to life. The reader in the front announced the references and then we all read them out loud together. Good stuff.

Then the choir sang a few songs to us. And then the pastor came to give the sermon.

First she told us to say to the person next to us, "Jesus has risen" so we did.

She said the theme of her sermon would be this question: Do people find God or does God find people? First, she talked about people looking for God- specifically, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John.

So, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb when it was still dark, and Jesus wasn't there! She was so sad, and what did she do? What do you do when you need help? What do you do? Hmm, I heard some of you say pray. Anyway, Mary didn't know Jesus had risen. She went to get Peter and John.

Then when Peter and John came, they looked in the tomb and saw just the cloths. The bible says that John "saw and believed." What did he believe? Did he believe Jesus had risen? (Some of the congregation says yes, some say no.) No! Or why would the next verse say they didn't understand that Jesus would rise from the dead? (Uh, but actually I didn't catch the pastor's interpretation of "he saw and believed" so, I don't know.)

Peter and John left, but Mary stayed there, doing what? Crying. And why did she stay there when the others had left? (This sermon had a lot of rhetorical questions. Some Chinese sermons are like that.) Because of love! Now, is a tomb a good place or not? No. We don't like death. We don't even like the word "death"- we use other words instead. What do we say when the emperor dies? [some Chinese euphemism for death] What do we say when an old person dies? [she rattles off a bunch more Chinese euphemisms that I don't know- but English has the exact same concept.]

Okay so the point of this part of the sermon is that Mary Magdalene was looking for Jesus, but she couldn't have found him if he wasn't also looking for her. She didn't even recognize him at first. Using her eyes, what did she see? Just the surroundings. But when Jesus said, "Mary," then she knew it was him. Not using her eyes, but using her heart. 

And remember the 2 disciples walking on the road to Emmaus? They didn't recognize Jesus at first either. And when Jesus showed up again in John 21 while the disciples were fishing, and they didn't know it was him until he said to put their nets on the other side, and how many fish did they catch? 153.

And I think at this point in the sermon there was also some mentioning of people who just know a lot about Jesus- history and information and stuff- but we really need to know him with our hearts. I didn't quite catch all of that.

So anyway, we need God to find us.

And no matter if you know it or not, no matter if you feel it or not, God is with you. He is Immanuel- it means "the God who is with you."

Now let's look in Luke 24. The angel asked Mary, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" If you look among the dead, will you ever find life? NO! [At this point the pastor gets really excited and animated.] You will NEVER find the living among the dead! And there is a path of death, and it only leads to death. And there is the path of Jesus.

We need God to find us. Remember when Lazarus died and was put in the tomb, and what did Jesus say? "Lazarus, come out!" And he came out! And God is calling your name and calling my name, saying, "Come out of there! COME OUT!" Out of death and hopelessness and some other Chinese words.

All right, so that was the sermon. There are probably some parts I'm missing but I think I've got enough to give you an idea of what Chinese Christianity is like. Like I said last week, it's not "watered-down," even though this church is okayed by the government. (But I bet there are some things the church is not free to do.)

Happy Easter! He is risen!

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See also: Palm Sunday in Chinese

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: The one thing that can never change

Image source.

Remember back in college, when I wrote a few letters to my "future husband"?

Yeah... yeah. I thought it would be so great, years later when I got married and I would give them to him. But now the kind of guy I wrote the letters to isn't the kind of guy I want to marry.

I thought I'd always believe that stuff, but I've changed.

And I've changed so much. Everything I believed as a "good Christian"... The stuff about hell, the stuff about sin, the stuff about purity... I just kind of think back to it and feel like, "nobody believes that anymore, do we?"

Except Good Friday.

Everything changed, but one thing that can't change is that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

That's still true, right?

So Genesis 1 didn't really happen (but is still valuable). Okay, whatever. And the bible has some mistakes. Fine. And I used to think I knew all the answers, and I knew everything about Jesus and why he died, but now those answers don't make sense and I have some new opinions about that but I don't want to say what they are now because I might confuse my own opinion with God's.

But, this is true: That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

I don't care about the rules anymore, about purity and modesty and you have to read your bible every day or else you're a bad Christian. And I'm no longer going to automatically believe someone because they say "this is God's way" and call others "false teachers." And I'm figuring it out using my way, using my own brain- yeah, not "trusting God" and all that.

But, I'm still a Christian, because I believe Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

If that's not true, screw the whole religion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

So, were the other gods real or not?

A couple verses from Psalms 96 and 97 I'd like to point out:

"For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens."
Psalm 96:4-5

"All who worship images are put to shame,
    those who boast in idols-
    worship him, all you gods!
...
For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth;
    you are exalted far above all gods."
Psalm 97:7,9

So, what did the psalmists think about these other "gods"? It seems to me that back then, people generally believed that a lot of gods existed, and you should worship the one who is most powerful or can help you the most. I see this idea in a couple places in the Old Testament:

Exodus 7:10-13
"So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said."

It seems that Pharoah isn't bothered by Moses' god doing miracles if Pharoah's god can also do them. And the writer of Exodus doesn't have a problem with it either- like yeah the Egyptian sorcerers turned sticks into snakes too, ho hum whatever.

1 Kings 20:23, 28
"Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, 'Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they.'
...
The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, 'This is what the Lord says: "Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord."'"

The leaders of the enemy army believed different gods had power in different places- hills, plains, etc.

Exodus 32:4-5
"[Aaron] took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, 'These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, 'Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.'"

So somehow they had this idea that worshiping the golden calf counted as worshiping the Lord. Maybe they thought every god would have an idol associated with it.

1 Samuel 5-6
The Philistines captured the ark of the covenant, but then weird things started happening, like their idol kept falling down every night, and people were getting sick and dying. So they had some of their religious leaders figure out what to do- send it back to Israel with some gold models of mice and tumors.

So they knew that Israel's god was powerful, but that fact didn't conflict at all with their own religion- they just saw it like Israel's god has power over this object, the ark of the covenant, so let's figure out what he wants and do it, and that's that. Then continue following their own god.

2 Kings 17:24-28, 33
"The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people. It was reported to the king of Assyria: 'The people you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know what the god of that country requires. He has sent lions among them, which are killing them off, because the people do not know what he requires.' Then the king of Assyria gave this order: 'Have one of the priests you took captive from Samaria go back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires.' So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria came to live in Bethel and taught them how to worship the Lord.
...
They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought."

They believed that area had a local god, so they tacked on some worship of him along with their own religions.

1 Samuel 28
King Saul goes to see a medium who can talk to the dead. He has her "bring up" Samuel... and it seems like it works. So was it real- there was a religion that had that power to talk to the dead?

Image source.

And all of this makes me wonder- as a Christian, how should I view supernatural claims outside of Christianity? For example, are the gods of other religions real? What about ghosts? And witchcraft?

There are 4 possibilities:
  1. The supernatural thing in question is fake.
  2. It's real, and it's bad and opposed to God- probably satan or demons.
  3. It's real and it's God. People find God in other religions, and that's good. It's the same God, but Christianity has the most accurate view of him.
  4. It's real- it's just a supernatural being who is way less powerful than God. Not necessarily a good or bad thing. (An angel?)
All right, now I want to hear your thoughts:
Anyone have insight into how ancient people viewed gods of other religions? I'd like to find out more about this idea of a "local god."
What do you think of supernatural claims outside of your religion? (And are there other possibilities besides the 4 I mentioned?)

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 97. To read other people's posts, click here: A Holy Week Juxtaposition.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NEVER EVER EVER let cats near lilies

Though this picture is the MOST ADORABLE thing you'll see all day, it's REALLY BAD and you should NEVER give cats access to lilies. Lilies are poison.

My kitty is fine now, but last week I was scared to death because he ate part of a lily. And lilies are poisonous to cats.

Lilies kill cats. (Click for more information.)

So make sure if you have cats, you don't bring home any lilies for Easter or anything.

SERIOUSLY your cat could DIE.

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Here's what happened with my little angel:

So, I had some lilies in a bucket (yeah I don't have a vase...) on top of my fridge. You know, it's high up where Kitty can't get it. No worries. At this point I didn't know they were bad for kitties.

Everything is going fine, they're blooming and my apartment smells so nice.

But then one morning, I got out of bed and found SOMEONE had barfed on the couch, and there were some lily petals on the floor. The flowers were starting to die, so they had fallen down.

Ah. Great, why do I have a cat? So I cleaned it up and didn't think about it much, until the afternoon when I remembered my mom and sister had told me lilies are very poisonous for cats. I started looking for information online, and wow, cats can DIE from that. It causes kidney failure. It's really really bad.

So I'm like, eh I don't want to bother with taking him all the way to the vet, eh, sounds too complicated... but then I started getting more and more worried.

I looked up the Chinese word for "lily" (百合花 bǎi hé huā), and I'm thinking, "man, it's possible that if I didn't speak Chinese, my cat would DIE." And I called the vet and asked them what to do. (From this point on, you can assume all dialogue is in Chinese.)

The guy on the phone asked when Kitty ate the lily and when he threw up, and if he's eaten any cat food today. I am such a bad cat owner, I actually had forgotten to feed Kitty that day. Wow. So I said I don't think he's eaten, and the guy on the phone said to see if he eats or not- if not, I need to bring him in that night because it's very serious.

I put food in his bowl and he ate some, but then I decided just to be safe, I'll take him to the vet.

And I threw out all the lilies.

So I told the little munchkin that we're going to the vet, and I tried to put him in a bag so I could take him, and he was really really not a fan of that- it took many tries to get him in.

Then we went out and took a taxi to see the vet. And you know, when the woman at the front desk sees me come in, she's not sure what to do because I'm white and oh no what if we need to find someone who can speak English. This kind of situation drives me crazy, but I get why people think that way- a lot of white people live in China and can't speak Chinese. So I have to be the one to talk first and then it's all good.

We go into one of the examination rooms and put Kitty on the table, and oh he's so nervous. Sticking a thermometer up his butt didn't help.

I told the vet all about it, and she said a lot of stuff I couldn't understand- probably the Chinese word for "kidney failure." She said it's very serious and cats can die from eating lilies. And she asked a lot of questions about when he ate it, when he threw up, how many times he threw up (I don't know but there were 2 spots on the couch, so...), did I actually see him eating the lily, etc.

She told me they would do some tests- I don't know enough medical vocabulary to understand it, but I knew it involved blood tests and I couldn't catch the rest. She told me it would cost 830 RMB. I said okay.

So then some other vet people came in and helped stuff Kitty into a sleeve where only his head and one leg was sticking out- man, he hated that. And they put the cone of shame on him. And I kept reassuring him in Chinese that it would all be okay. And the vet is petting him and calling him "mimi" (咪咪) which means "kitty" to try to get him to calm down.

Yeah and then they stuck a needle in his arm to get the blood sample and he started hissing at everybody and I told him, if you didn't want to come to the vet, you shouldn't have eaten a lily.


Okay so that's done, and they removed the cone of shame and took him out of the sleeve and let him be free. The vet said it would take 15 minutes for the results to come back. So I just hung out there in the examination room, alone with my poor sad little animal, who kept tensing up every time a dog would bark in the next room over.

The vet came back with the results and said it all looked normal, but we can't necessarily be sure yet- it may be too soon to tell. I should keep an eye on him and bring him back immediately if he throws up again.

And she said, you know, it's normal for cats to just barf maybe once or twice a month, maybe he just has hairballs or something and he didn't eat the lily. No one actually saw him eat it.

I don't buy that- really, I find lily petals on the floor and barf on my couch on the SAME DAY- I think there's a connection. But I think he only ate a little and then threw up, so it got out of his system and he's okay.

The next day he was eating just like normal, and running around causing chaos just like normal, so he's fine.

All right. Ah this cat is so much trouble and I had to spend a lot of money for that, but I told him, it's okay, you're worth it.

AND WHAT DID WE ALL LEARN FROM THIS? I will never bring lilies into my apartment again.

Giant bears, however, are safe for kitties.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Blogaround

Image source.

1. In Search of a Better Gospel (posted April 3) "Last week was, I believe, a head-on collision between these two gospels."

2. why purity culture doesn’t teach consent (posted April 3) "They don’t teach consent because teaching consent would undermine one of their basic assumptions about people. Namely, the assumption that every single last person– most especially men, but also women– are basically nymphos who are straining at their leashes every single second of every single day and if you let that sex-crazed beast out for even just a moment then BAM it’s all over and you’re not a virgin anymore and that’s horrible because now you’re a half-eaten candybar or a cup full of spit."

3. Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney (posted March 7) "But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times."

4. A “God’s Not Dead” Retrospective: The Day I Debated the M.Div. Dean of My College. (posted April 4) "A chemical rush went through my entire body as I spoke, which I took to mean that Jesus was speaking through me."

5. Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping (posted April 2) Lots of information here, with pictures and infographics.

6. Voice of Winnie the Pooh reading Darth Vader lines (posted April 7) "She must have hidden the plans in the escape pod. Oh bother."

7. Matthew 18 abuse needs to stop (posted April 10) "Christians who have treated others badly — who have, in fact, sinned against their brothers and sisters — treat this text like it’s their Miranda rights."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in Chinese

Image source.

I'm so happy I went to church this morning. And I'm so happy I get to tell you all about it.

So I get there a half hour before the earliest service starts. And the church is already packed. I said good morning (早上好 zǎo shang hǎo) to the greeters at the door, and started walking up one of the side aisles looking for an usher who would help me find a seat. One of them saw me and waved for me to keep coming forward (with a palm facing down- different from how Americans gesture "come") and got me a seat between 2 old women. It's the earliest service, so the majority of the people here are old and like to get up early. (I go early because I work on Sundays.) And there are definitely more women than men.

Meanwhile, everyone's got their hymnals open, and they're singing "十字架,十字架 [shízìjià, shízìjià]" which means "the cross, the cross." Yeah the service hasn't started yet, but I guess since people get there so early, they have to kill time by singing. One of the church staff is up front leading the singing.

So we sang a couple of songs about Jesus' death, plus the songs that were to be used in the actual service.

Also, before the service, a lot of people are praying. Sometimes out loud. Like, just alone, with  their head bowed, but out loud.

So, time to start. The choir files in. Oh and if you came like, on time, instead of super-early, yeah you're not getting a seat. Try the overflow seating area.

We all stood up and opened our hymnals to sing the first song. (Actually, these books are a bible with a hymnal in the back.) It was about Jesus riding the donkey on Palm Sunday. In Chinese, of course.

Next, a pastor prays, and after every line, a bunch of people in the congregation are like "amen." In Chinese it's not pronounced like "ay-men", it's "ahh-men." People are ahhmening all through the prayer. I guess it's the thing to do.

Then we all sit down and sing the second song. YOU GUYS! It was the Chinese version of "Come Thou Fount." One of my favorite songs!

"Come Thou Fount" in Chinese

Sweeeeeeeeeeeeet!!!

Next, the choir sang a song. It's hard for me to understand what they're singing. Anyway, meanwhile I'm trying to use my phone to look up words from the hymns we just did, but today I couldn't get a signal. There are always words I don't know at Chinese church.

Then someone announced the two Scripture passages for today. The first one was Genesis 22, when Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac. The woman who was doing the announcement kept saying the reference over and over, to give us time to find it, and thank goodness because I do not yet know all the books of the bible in Chinese.

The whole congregation read together, out loud.

Next, she told us the second passage was from Matthew 21 (the story of Palm Sunday), and said the reference a bunch of times so we could all find it. Then we all read it together. With an "ahh-men" at the end.

And someone else announced the title of the sermon and the name of the pastor who was preaching, and then the pastor showed up. (About half the time there's a woman preaching and half the time there's a man. This week it was a man.)

The sermon always starts out with the pastor wishing peace (平安 píng ān) to us, and then we all respond by saying "平安 [píng ān]" back to him. And he (constantly) addresses us as "弟兄姊妹 [dìxiōng zǐmèi]" which means "brothers and sisters." People are always calling each other brothers and sisters at Chinese church.

"Do you know what day today is? It's Palm Sunday." That's how the sermon started. And I'll just write down what I remember from it. I didn't understand everything, of course.

Here goes:

So first he was talking about the similarities between Abraham giving up Isaac and Jesus' death. (Another dimension here is the Chinese one-child policy- remember how God told Abraham, "Take your son, your only son Isaac..." Chinese parents get that.)

And the pastor said, Abraham believed in resurrection, even though he had never seen it.

And then when he was about to kill Isaac, God didn't let him. Like when you pay the bill at a restaurant- God was like, I got this, I got this. God paid. Just like we don't have to pay because Jesus already paid for us. God was like, I got this, I got this.

(Because Chinese traditionally fight over the bill at restaurants. Everybody wants to pay it.)

Also something about how we have a lot of pressure in our lives, and Abraham had a lot of pressure. I'm not sure how that part related.

But Jesus was different from Isaac, because Isaac didn't know what was going on. Jesus ALWAYS knew his goal. And what was his goal? To die on the cross. 

Also a bit of talk about Palm Sunday and how everyone was so excited about Jesus, but a few days later they wanted to kill him.

And then he talked about when Jesus prayed before he was arrested- "Father take this cup from me- but not my will but yours be done." And what were the disciples doing at that time? (The pastor has an amused smile at this point- he smiled a lot throughout the sermon. Seems like he enjoyed it.) They were sleeping!

Hey, if a man was killed out on the road, and somebody accused you of killing him, but you were innocent, would you accept that? Well that was pretty much Jesus' situation. He was God. He never sinned.

When Jesus was crucified, he wasn't wearing any clothes. Not like the pictures.

All of you here today- it's not random. God planned it, and God cares for each person.

And he mentioned sometimes people go to the Buddhist temple and they think if they pray and worship, then God will give them something- but that's not how our God works. God loves us.

Also there was a story about an old woman who was a Christian but her husband wasn't, and as she was sick and dying, she said, "I'm not afraid of death- the one thing I'm afraid of is not seeing you again." And then later the husband became a Christian. Was that story at all related to the rest of the sermon?

All right, that's all I remember from the sermon. I'm putting all this on my blog because American Christians may be curious about Chinese Christians, and whether or not "the gospel is watered-down." This is one of the churches that's officially recognized by the government, and it has a bunch of security cameras and there are probably people keeping tabs on it.

But I haven't heard any suspicious teaching from there. I mean, there's stuff I disagree with, but it's all within the realm of things that American Christians often say. (But of course, different parts are emphasized in Chinese culture than American culture.)

Maybe "watered-down" is just a term people throw around when they accuse other Christians of not being real Christians.

Next, some announcements. Some stuff going on for Easter next week- I didn't quite catch it all, but it involved colorful eggs and I'm sure I can't come to that because I work on Sundays. Darn.

Then we stood up and sang another song from the hymnal, and prayed the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray. Every week we recite the Lord's prayer, but I don't have the Chinese version memorized yet.

Then the pastor came back and raised his hands and prayed for us. And after he said "amen" we all sang, "ahhhhmen, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhmen, ahhhHHHmen, ahhmen. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHmennnnnnnn."

And that's the end of the service.

A lot of people stay in the pews and pray after it's done. And there's a massive crowd trying to get out and another massive crowd trying to get in for the next service.

I prayed for a little bit, then dropped some money in the offering box on my way out. They don't "do offering" during the service- they just have a box at the entrance to the church.

Yep. I love going to church in Chinese because it's something so familiar wrapped in something so foreign. And God is there. 

Stay tuned for next week- I can't wait to see what Easter is like.


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Other posts about going to church in China:

How we took communion

I want to find God again in China

Thursday, April 10, 2014

But where's your Scripture to back that up, Jesus?

Jesus has a few things to say about the Pharisees' "traditions" in Matthew 15:1-20. Apparently they focus way too much on following the rules, and miss the big picture.

And back when I was a "good Christian," I read this passage and agreed. Ah yes, how silly the Pharisees were, making up all those extra rules that weren't even in the bible. But if it's rules that are in the bible, no matter how arbitrary, well that's a different story.

But now I think the "good Christian" interpretation misses the point.

Image source.

Okay first let's summarize what happens in Matthew 15:1-20. Some Pharisees were giving Jesus a hard time because his disciples "break the tradition of the elders" by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus doesn't address their objection, but instead asks why they have a loophole to get around God's command to "honor your father and mother." I'm not exactly sure on how this worked, but I guess sometimes people would say "I can't take care of my parents- everything I have is devoted to God." Well that's convenient.

That's an interesting point. You know, I've always believed "God first, others second, myself third"- which yeah, there are several problems with that, but for now let's talk about putting "loving God" above "loving others." It implies that in some cases, you must make a choice between these 2 options. It implies that in some cases, you must "love God against your neighbor," as Richard Beck puts it.

So in Matthew 15, we have people who are apparently so devoted to God that they're unable to help their parents. And Jesus is like, yeah, no.

(Another interesting thought: It's so tempting to say "yeah they weren't really devoted to God, they were just saying that to get out of helping their parents" because everything would then be tidy and convenient. But what if there really were people who did so much "for God" that they weren't able to take responsibility to help their parents? Doing something that sounded more spiritual, rather than helping others, because they really thought that was the right way to follow God. Dude, that's been me, so many times.)

Jesus gives us a relevant quote from Isaiah:
"These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules."

Hmm that last bit reminds me of every time people say "the bible" when they really mean "my interpretation of the bible." For example: "Are we going to follow the bible or just take the easy way?" And "This is the biblical way." Or everyone's favorite: "The bible is clear..."

Alright. We're halfway through the passage. So far, so good. Jesus makes a distinction between God's commands and the Pharisees' traditions. Jesus backs it up with Scripture.

In the second half, not so much.

"What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, this is what defiles them. ... Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts- murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them."

And God is sitting up there in heaven going, "well that's news to me."

I mean seriously! What about everything God commanded back in the Old Testament about being clean or unclean? What about Leviticus 11, which explains which animals are clean and therefore can be eaten, and which are unclean?

Yeah Jesus, this whole "what goes in vs what comes out" thing sounds great and all, but we're dealing with a bible that contains the word "unclean" over 100 times just in the book of Leviticus. And I don't think it was talking about "evil thoughts."

So, Jesus, are you going to follow the bible or be led astray by what "sounds good"?

Here's the point: Loving people is so much more important than following all the rules.

And you know what? Even though the Old Testament contains a ton of rules, it also hints that the rules aren't really what matters:

"Is this the kind of fasting I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustic
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?"

"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings."

A-freaking-men. Image source.
But here in the second half of the passage, Jesus doesn't quote Scripture. He just acts like this is common sense. You eat stuff and then later you poop. How could that make you unclean? "Unclean" is really about the kind of person you are. Quite a different definition than we were using in the Old Testament, huh?

And no Scripture to back it up...

Wow.

I'll say it again: Loving people is so much more important than following all the rules. Even if they're the bible's rules.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus' Time Management (Matthew 14:13-36)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I taught about Easter, in China

“哈利路亚 基督复活。” Hallelujah, Christ has risen. Image source.

Easter is coming soon, and the school where I work has been encouraging us teachers to do some lessons about it. (English school for adults in China.) Because you know, we teach English but we also want to teach about culture in western countries. Students are really interested in that.

So you know, some teachers are doing egg decorating and Easter egg hunts and making cute little rabbits, which should be really fun. I'm interested to see what kind of creative things the students do with those. But ... you haven't really taught about Easter if you haven't talked about the religious part.

How, though? I've heard stories about persecution in China, and foreigners being kicked out for talking about Jesus. On the other hand, Christianity is among the government-approved religions in China (they are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism). I've been to several churches here, and almost all have been packed. (And also full of security cameras.)

So the rules about religion are inconsistent. Perhaps the best explanation is the Chinese government doesn't want Chinese culture to be taken over by western culture- so foreign Christians trying to convert Chinese are highly suspicious, while a church with Chinese leaders is not. (And actually, there are some churches where ONLY foreigners are allowed- the government doesn't want them influencing Chinese people.)

Or maybe it's more complicated than that.

Anyway, back to my story. I did a class about Easter a few days ago. I showed the students some pictures of Easter-related traditions- some were religious (like Ash Wednesday) and some were not religious (like Easter baskets). They started asking me about why do we celebrate Easter, and what is Good Friday, etc, and I'm not going to just tell them the answers- I think students learn better when they find the answers themselves.

So I told them to pick one of the traditions and use their phones or the school computers to go online and find some information about it. And then come back in 15 minutes and explain it to the class. In English.

That was pretty fun. The only downside was that they were mostly finding information on Chinese sites, so that wasn't helping them practice their English. If I do a class like that again- where they have to research on the computers- maybe I should make some changes to deal with that problem. (And then when they used English sites, they would just copy down phrases like "commemorate the resurrection of Christ" and I doubt that they even know what those words mean. So yeah. Definitely gotta make some changes to the lesson plan so they use more English- English that they can actually understand.)

But overall, I liked the class. The students learned about Easter, and I didn't teach them anything religious.

I really don't know how paranoid I should be about talking about religion with my students. During the class, I was thinking, "Oh geez, everyone is baidu-ing [Chinese equivalent to googling] Easter... that's gonna look suspicious, we're gonna get our internet connection shut off." Probably a little too paranoid.

In an American school, there would certainly be no problem with what I did. It was clearly education and clearly not forcing religious ideas on students. But what if the Chinese government doesn't see it that way?

(Though I will point out, the only people I've heard say we're not supposed to talk about religion in China are Christians.)

But man, we're supposed to do classes on Easter this month. Easter is a Christian holiday. You can't just not say that. That's not good education.