Category Archives: Asia

No Shortcuts

Adapted from the charge to the graduates at a seminary in Myanmar.

1500 people attend Commencement

1500 people attend Commencement

“Don’t Confuse Seeking God with Serving God”

In my last posting, I praised the many dedicated faculty members and pastors I have met in Myanmar, who have inspired me with their sacrificial service. However, as time has gone on, I have grown uncomfortable with some of what I have been seeing.

I’m still very impressed and challenged by their “theology of the cross” (theologia cruxis) as they live out their calling. Yet, at the same time, I’m concerned for them. Some of these inspirational individuals are burning themselves out and putting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk by trying to please everyone who demands something from them. Many simply do not feel free to take time to nurture their own relationship with God—to experience the love of God and refreshment from the Holy Spirit—because they are so busy serving Christ.

In my address to the graduates, I encouraged them to let their passion for ministry  flow, but to not think that passion and dedication alone are enough for long-term service. No matter how great the needs of others, all of us need a vital relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit to truly experience the full life God intends for us and to have the needed power to serve Christ’s purposes most effectively.

Here’s what was said:
“Most of you will be entering or returning to a Christian culture that will demand everything from you as a pastor or Christian worker. Those of you who are the most dedicated are also the most at risk of being exploited by others, because you will feel guilty if you do not try to do everything everyone wants you to do.
Many of you will take jobs where others will expect you to be available 7 days a week, and if you are not, you will be criticized. There will be great pressure for you to try to meet everyone’s needs.
Well, guess what? You can’t. You cannot meet everyone’s needs. There will always be more requests, more needs, more demands on your time. And when you find yourself being pulled in too many directions, with too little sleep, with too much pressure, what are you going to do then? Keep trying harder until you collapse from exhaustion? Or worse, drop over dead from a heart attack, as has happened?
The problem is that too often we think that having a good relationship with God means that we will work ourselves to death trying to serving God. And what that often translates to is that we falsely equate pleasing others with pleasing God. And so we think we cannot say “no” to the demands of others, without saying “no” to Christ.
The truth however is quite different. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to others in order to say “yes” to Christ. Sometimes we have to say “no” to service, to say “yes” to seeking God.
I can’t give you a formula to help you know in every situation when you should say yes or when you should say no to the demands of your church or others. But I can tell you that Jesus is quite clear that the most important priority we have is to abide in him. He was also quite clear when he said that loving others was our second priority—not our first. Our first priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and then to love others out of our experience of the love of God.
When we put pleasing others above knowing and loving God, we risk losing touch with the real source of life, the real source of power, the real source of love, grace and joy.  Your culture may demand that you put serving others first, but who are you going to obey? If you don’t draw some boundaries and carve out time and space for your relationship with God, with your family, with yourself, you are going to lose your ability to serve as God intends.
Some day, you will be honored at the great Graduation Celebration in Heaven. I assure you, I will not be the commencement speaker that day. Jesus will be. The words you will long to hear will not be what we are saying to you today, “Well done good and faithful students.” You are going to want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servants.”
But do not think that Jesus is only going to be concerned about how much work you did or how many people you pleased. He will also care about how much you loved him and how you much you learned to live as one with God. “
Bottom line: Yes, we are called to sacrificial service for Christ. Yet, our ability to be the leaders, ministers, and servants God intends for us in very demanding circumstances requires a vital relationship with God. Spirit-led leadership means just that, it is “Spirit-led.” And the only way we are going to be Spirit-led is if we are continually nurturing our relationship to Christ through the Spirit, as the source of inspiration, wisdom, and power for effective Christian service.
There are no short cuts.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV)

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What I am seeing…

This is the second article written from Burma (Myanmar), where I am teaching and serving with Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries.

Dr. Cung Lian Hup teaching at M.I.T.

Dr. C.L.H. teaching at M.I.T.

I am seeing more and more signs of Spirit-led living and Spirit-led leadership in those around me—not because they’re increasing, but because I’m looking for them more.

What’s making the biggest impression on me so far here in Burma is how many students, pastors, and leaders seem to be simply swept along in a spirit of sacrificial service. Every day, they are unobtrusively making choices for the well-being of others, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves and their families.

Half the time, they don’t even acknowledge how much they are giving up. To many, being separated from their family for months and years at a time is normal. Working seven days a week is simply “necessary” because of the needs of the people under their care. Sharing their very meager amounts of food or other resources with someone who is visiting from out of town or has less than they do is simply the right thing to do. Burma has a culture of hospitality, to be sure, but even more, their relationship with God drives many of them to remarkable levels of generosity.

For example, one faculty member at at a seminary in Myanmar, Dr. Z.L, continues to teach Old Testament, even though he is supposed to be retired. Younger faculty members do not yet have their PhDs, and his retirement would leave a huge hole at the seminary (like the one I’m temporarily filling in the New Testament department). He is also the senior pastor of a small church that reaches out to many poor and illiterate Kachin Christians (one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar). His wife keeps asking him when he is going to rest. His reply? “Rest is for the next life, I guess. There is far too much that needs to be done to rest here.”

Another faculty member of another seminary in Yangon, “H. Thwaing” (pseudonym), decided to return from America to serve his people, even though he had the opportunity to stay, which would have been far more financially beneficial for him. After five years of studying for an advanced degree, he was offered a job as the senior pastor of church in New York for Burmese immigrants. Though the offer was attractive for many reasons, he chose to return to Myanmar to stand with those who are suffering and help in any way he could.

For different, but equally self-sacrificial, reasons, Dr. Cung Lian Hup returned from America to serve as academic dean of a seminary. He had been living with his whole family in the U.S. while earning a Ph.D. in missiology. Staying there, raising his children in American schools and enjoying an American way of life would have been a great opportunity for all of them. Nevertheless, he chose to return to Myanmar. He wanted his children to know their motherland and their own ethnic roots. Even more, he wanted to honor the commitments he had made—to the seminary who sent him to America, to those who financially supported him and his family, and to the American consular who had granted him a visa—that he would return home to teach. Then, when he had an opportunity to stay for four more years in America, he came back anyway, reasoning that his return would free up scholarship money for some other aspiring faculty member.

When “La Pen’s” pastor first began urging her to consider going to seminary, she refused. In the first place, she wasn’t sure what she believed about God, and secondly, she felt completely inadequate to get a Master of Divinity degree. Unless God gave her some kind of sign, she argued, she wasn’t going.

However, it wasn’t long before she got the sign she didn’t want!

One night, she was dreaming that she was in church and the pastor was preaching. Suddenly, he pointed his finger at her, and said, “Serve your people!” When she woke up, she knew that she had not had a nightmare. She had received a calling. She enrolled in seminary, and while there, she felt led to create a center for impoverished and needy children from her ethnic group. Now there are 50 kids, eight or ten of which are orphans, whom she alone cares for every day, when she’s not lecturing part time in feminist theology part time at the seminary.

Space doesn’t allow me to tell every story I have heard so far. Each is different, and each is the same. In one way or another, these Christian men and women love God, are committed to Christ, and are following the Spirit’s leading to serve their people. Often at great personal cost. The Holy Spirit calls them, prompts them, opens doors for them, provides resources in surprising ways, and leads them forward one step at a time to serve Christ in their context.

I know many pastors and lay leaders who are similarly being led by the Spirit in the United States, Europe, and Africa, too. Now that I’ve had the privilege of working with Christians on four continents I’m seeing a common denominator, regardless of the cultural, educational, and socio-economic differences. The Spirit seems to be leading the most inspired and inspiring among us to live out their faith by sacrificially serving others.

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Spirit-Led Living in Real Life

This is the first of a series of postings from Myanmar (Burma), where we are serving for the next couple of months with Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries. Email me if you want to be on our e-newsletter list.

What do you expect God to do in your life today? Are you expecting the Holy Spirit to create divine appointments for you in the midst of whatever else you have planned?

Before heading out to Burma, I had a chance to visit my brother in Texas. As I was driving to his house on Saturday afternoon, my eye caught a couple of people fighting with a sign blowing in the wind. I had about a nano-second to try to read the words as I drove by, but I saw enough to wonder if there might be a church service in the school building nearby.

Later that afternoon, I dragged my two young nephews back to that intersection and my instincts were confirmed. I had two other options for churches, but this one’s service fit my schedule the best. On Sunday morning, I slipped in the back door shortly before the worship began.

I really liked how warm everyone was and the feel of the congregation. Afterwards, I sought out the pastor to thank him for the morning, but soon sensed that something was troubling him. I felt a strong impulse to offer my perceptions and perspective on pastoral leadership in order to try to encourage him.

I was clearly being presumptuous. I had no knowledge of his church or of him other than what I heard in the sermon. My comments were unsolicited and audacious. Yet, I sensed the Holy Spirit was prompting me to boldly say what I was seeing and thinking—for the pastor’s sake.

You could say, I was taking a chance on the Holy Spirit.

Surprisingly, he opened up his heart to me as we stood in front of the sanctuary with parishioners milling about. He talked about very personal matters, and he let me know that he was looking for a way out. At one point, he suddenly grabbed me by the arm and asked me—a total stranger 15 minutes earlier—to pray for him right there and then. I did.

Here’s the email I received from him a few days later. (Used with his permission, with contextual information altered or deleted.)

Tim, I’ve been intending to email you and update you, but been busy. Our talk really went a long way in renewing my hope. It was so nice to visit with someone safe (no affiliation to our church and no denominational agenda) and share my frustrations. One of the things you said that really helped was talking about the emotional toll of leadership. It was so nice to have someone know exactly what I’m dealing with. Leading a church is a draining and at times a painful undertaking. It is unlike any other job since we pour our heart into it. I think that is a lot of what has been going on with me, the emotional pain of recent events and the slow, steady toll on my heart of leading this church for the last 6 years.

I ordered your book, One Step at a Time, and am through the Introduction. I’m enjoying what you’ve written. It seems to be addressing a struggle of mine….

Recently with some of the acute frustrations here I made the decision to start planning my “exit strategy” and go into counseling. Our talk put some hope back in my sails, at least for the short, medium-term future, in terms of continuing to lead this church….

I met with my therapist this week and we talked about what has been going on, and about my visit with you on Sunday. That also helped me clear my head and just take things “one day at a time” in considering my future.

I had no idea of what the Holy Spirit might do when I drove by that half posted sign Saturday afternoon or decided at the last minute to attend that church just because the starting time was more convenient than the one down the street. I still didn’t sense the Holy Spirit was leading me to talk to the pastor until we were in the middle of our conversation after the service.

Suddenly, I knew. I was experiencing a “divine appointment”. God had led me to this church on this particular day to encourage this pastor at a critical moment in his life and ministry.

As I drove back to my brother’s house, I felt exhilarated. I was praising and thanking God for the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit in such a surprising—though not unexpected—way.

All of my Spirit-led encounters are not this dramatic or powerful. Yet, I do expect the Holy Spirit to be working and leading me into meaningful, joyful, and fruitful interactions with others every day. I take no credit for any such divine encounters, except that I choose to show up in life with high expectations, expecting the Holy Spirit to lead me and use me to serve God’s good purposes regularly on the journey.

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

How is the Holy Spirit leading you to divine appointments that serve God’s purposes? I’d like to hear your stories. Please comment here or email me at

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Crowning Christ, Loving the Least

This posting was inspired by a discussion during lectio divina this past week ahead of The Reign of Christ (traditionally, Christ the King) Sunday.


A Burmese boy orphaned after the murder of his parents.

A Burmese boy orphaned after the murder of his parents.


After an hour of reading, re-reading and meditating on this week’s Gospel text in our lectio divina group, we were getting ready to go. We had been focusing on Jesus’ well-known parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. There the Son of Man sits on the heavenly throne, reigning as the King of the universe, judging humanity based on their response to the needy. He uses the same criterion for both those who are welcomed into eternal life and those who are sent to eternal punishment: “Whatever you have done (or not done) to one of the least of these, you have done (or not done) to me.”

Each of us was squirming a bit in our seats at times, and a tad troubled with the strong language of judgment. As we shared our thoughts and questions with one another, one woman wondered aloud why this text was chosen for Christ the King Sunday. Apparently, the choir was planning to sing about crowning Jesus with many crowns as part of the congregation’s worship. Yet, she questioned, what does crowning Christ as king have to do with ministering to widows, orphans, and other suffering people throughout the world? In one case, we rejoice in the risen, exalted Savior and Lord who reigns in triumph in heaven. In the other, we grapple with the grief of those ruled by poverty, oppressive regimes, and cruel exploitation in the here and now.

That’s when it hit me.

Jesus told stories to make a point and often to evoke an emotional reaction. (So far, this one was working.) He did not speak as a systematic theologian, and he never wrote down a single word of theology—or anything else as far as we know. Rather, he was a preacher and teacher, who used parables to powerfully touch the hearts and minds of whoever had “ears to hear”.

So, what are we supposed to hear, see, and feel from this parable? That living compassionately is a way of life for true followers of Christ—caring for those in need is not an option, but an expectation of all disciples. “Righteousness” is not simply about believing the right things about God, completing prescribed rituals, or following rules. Righteousness is a condition of our hearts that shows itself in concrete action toward those who most need our support, help, or encouragement.

Acknowledging Christ as King, then, is not just done by bending our knees and swearing allegiance to Jesus, or by lifting our hands and singing songs of praise in a worship service. Yes, discipleship involves a submission of our wills and trust in Christ for salvation. Yes, following Jesus calls for confession of faith and worship. Yet, what the parable of the sheep and goats shouts loudly is that those who truly crown Christ from their hearts also do so by how they treat their fellow human beings.

This parable is not teaching works-righteousness, it’s insisting that the righteous will do good works.   

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31-36, 40, NRSV)

We crown Christ king every time we respect and care for others as we would him. We crown Christ king every time we let his love flow through us to others as if we were loving him. We crown Christ king every time we see someone in distress, and instead of judging them, dismissing their pleas, or ignoring their needs, we say, “There’s Jesus! How can I best show my love to him now?”

Now that I’m thinking this way, I suspect I have a lot of coronations coming up.

I’m actually excited about the prospects.

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How Bright is Our Light?

This is the third in a series of postings on my recent trip to China.

The Troubling Surprise

To me, in spite of all the obvious and subtle differences between China and America, and between an atheistic/syncretistic religious environment and a predominately Christian-influenced Western world, I was surprised at how at home I felt in many places we went. The children laughed, played, teased and fought with each other just like in every place I’ve ever lived or visited. Teenagers liked hanging out with their friends, buying the latest style in clothes, and clinging to their boy- or girlfriends in public. Young adults seemed consumed with selling in the market places, getting ahead, and marrying. Older people were concerned about their kids and grandkids, their standard of living, and comforts. People seemed more or less just as friendly as anywhere else, just as courteous (or not), just as forthright (or not), and so forth. On the surface, age, personality, social status and economic means seemed to be just as big determinants of behavior for the Chinese as they are for us in the U.S.

I don’t know what I expected to experience, but why was I so surprised that human beings in China acted like human beings everywhere else in the world? At first I was even a bit crabby to discover how “normal” life could be with virtually no visible or verbal reference to God or faith in Christ anywhere I could see. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting. Was I disappointed that “communists” (or people in a Communist country) didn’t have horns or that their society wasn’t in disarray?

No, what was really bothering me was that my own society, rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition, didn’t seem to be that different or better. My crabbiness came from suddenly realizing that a) Christianity has not transformed our way of life as I had imagined and would hope, and b) what we are transporting to China is not our best selves, but our humanistic, materialistic philosophy of life.

As a Christian, I would hope that my life would be so thoroughly characterized by Jesus Christ that others would be able to visibly see a difference in how I live, what I think, and what I value. I would hope that the love of God would shine through me so vividly that others would experience Christ through me and be inspired to seek out God for themselves.

To be fair, over the years, I’ve seen many Christians live out their faith in compelling ways—generously giving of themselves and resources to help others, faithfully enduring false accusation and persecution due to their faith, serving sacrificially, forgiving and being gracious to others. Not one of them is perfect, but I can see the difference their faith is making in their life, and how others benefit from their spiritual growth. My own life is different as well, because of my faith and spiritual growth over the years. Yet, is it different enough that others can see and feel the reality of God through me? Are our lights shining brightly enough for others who do not know God as a God of love, and Christ as Savior and Lord, to see the reality of God through us?

I suspect that regardless of whatever our official beliefs may be, we Christians often undermine our spiritual vitality and witness to others by our materialism, faith in human capabilities and technology, status-seeking, and power-grabbing. We’re so close to our way of life—I’m so close—that we often cannot see how much these secular and self-serving values affect us.

A Flash of Insight

The flash of insight I got since coming home is that syncretism is simply not just a phenomenon of Asia (or Africa or anywhere else where ancient traditional religions are still widely practiced). And godlessness—not knowing, honoring or serving God—is not just a phenomenon found among atheists or agnostics.

Christians can also be syncretistic. Christians can also live in ways that appear to be godless. I realize that this insight is nothing new to most of us, but the power of its truth hit me a new way while I was in China.

When it comes down to it, I’m not really concerned with the question, why are so many Chinese people increasingly like Americans? What I’m really wanting to know is this: why doesn’t our faith in Christ and relationship with God make us more noticeably different? If Christ is truly the Savior of the world, who calls us to radically re-orient our lives to follow him and serve God’s purposes, and the Holy Spirit is in us transforming us, then why do so many American Christians act so much like nonbelievers?

In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins, a personal relationship with a loving God, hope for eternity, and a sense of God-given purpose—concepts largely absent in Chinese religion. Through the Bible, we have wisdom for personal and community living. Chinese have Confucius, but not the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and apostles. Most of us wouldn’t trade these huge gifts for anything. Yet, have we gone far enough? Is it time we think more seriously about how to take the next step in integrating our faith and our life?

Jesus warned us in the parable of the sower:

Others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:18-20, NIV)

In the years ahead, I hope many Americans and Chinese will become close friends. It’s already happening through an increasing number of students and tourists visiting one another’s country and through this year’s Olympics in Beijing. In spite of our many differences, we have much in common, too, that can be celebrated and enjoyed.

At the same time, I hope my life increasingly looks different from those who do not believe in God and do not follow Christ—not for my sake, but for theirs. Materialism is empty. Humanism can be misleading. Syncretism is confusing, contradictory and ultimately undermines a healthy relationship with God. Godlessness is false and dangerous, often leading to more suffering. Only Christ can rescue us from ourselves and lead us into the fullness of life God intends for us. My life has hugely benefited from understanding these things and growing spiritually. My prayer is that I can step up my faith and faithfulness so that others will be able to see better what truly makes me tick and gives me hope.

What do you think American Christians need to do differently to reflect the light of Christ more vibrantly in the world? 

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The Spiritual Vacuum

This is the second posting in a series of reflections coming from my recent experience in China.

Chinese Religion and Culture

Historically, politically and religiously huge differences still exist between East and West, in general, and China and America, in particular. In contrast to less than 250 years of history as a nation, China has had 2100 years of emperors, beginning in 221 B.C. with the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty, finishing with the Qing (pronounced, Ching) dynasty in 1911, followed by not quite 100 years of two different forms of “republican” government. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been officially “communist” and ruled by a Central Committee. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate (or minimize) all traditional and foreign religions, and members of the Communist party are supposed to be atheists. However, for the masses, other religions are more or less tolerated and capitalism has been embraced to various degrees, as the country has increasingly opened up over the past 15-20 years.

Chinese religion and philosophy are rooted principally in Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism, with the three often co-existing side by side, sometimes even within one temple. The couple of guides that were willing to talk to me about how Buddhism is practiced helped confirm what I have read. In China, as well as in South East Asia, “Buddhism” as practiced is mixed with traditional religions, including beliefs in many gods and spirits in trees, stones and other inanimate objects, having been highly influenced by Taoism (emphasizing inner communion with nature) and undoubtedly other traditional religions. Ghosts and spirits are widely believed in as well.

A handful of animal figures represent key Chinese beliefs or values. The dragon is seen as both a dangerous and benevolent divine-like figure (in contrast to Western views of dragons), symbolizing power. The Phoenix represents the high value placed on longevity on life. Fierce mythological, winged creatures (guardians) are frequently depicted in sculptures and art.

As opposed to Theravada Buddhists (see “What the Buddhists Taught Me” under the category of “Inter-Faith Dialogue at, Mahayana (major way) Buddhism is practiced in China. Mahayana Buddhists are likely to view Buddha as a spirit to whom they can pray and who can come to help them. Like Hindus, Chinese Buddhists are likely to believe “in all the gods” (as one Chinese Buddhist informed me). Perhaps the closest parallel to Christians’ belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son for the redemption of humanity may be found among those Mahayana Buddhists  who see Buddha as benevolent, helping those who pray to him and inspiring enlightened Buddhists, called, Bodhisattvas. Refusing to enter Nirvana, Bodhisattvas choose to return to human incarnation to serve humanity until all reach enlightenment.

The Communist government has been officially atheistic since 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution (1965-67, especially), the Red Guard attempted to sweep away belief in the gods, including the traditional religious beliefs held by the masses. Religion was even outlawed for awhile. Today many young people consider themselves atheists, but practically, syncretistic forms of religion (a mixing of religious beliefs and practices from various traditions) exist in many places. In the past ten years, the number of Chinese people saying they are religious has tripled, and now represents over 30% of the population.

These shifts are very promising for the future of China, in my opinion. Largely stripped of the cultural dependence on superstition and ancient religious practices, a spiritual vacuum has been created.

But who and what is going to fill this spiritual vacuum? Where will they turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance?

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China Today

This is the first of several weekly postings on my recent 18 day visit to China.


Awe, Emptiness and Strange, Uneasy Feelings

I’ve struggled to find adequate words to describe my impressions and feelings that grow out of my 18 days in China, this great nation of 1.3 billion people whose philosophical and religious foundations are markedly different from my own. I was awed by the beauty of the mountains and intrigued by the history of the people, whose fierce national pride was evident everywhere. Yet, I often felt empty touring the country, led by guides that took great pride in China’s historic landmarks, but had so little to say about the meaning or vision of China today.

I became aware of many cultural differences from the West, though not as many as I had assumed. In fact, what surprised me the most—and even troubled me—was how at home I often felt.  I came away sad for the Chinese people, challenged to look more closely at the emptiness in my own life and culture, and resolved to let my light shine more brightly.

If all the Chinese people see when they see America is our materialism and economic prosperity (we were told repeatedly that everyone in China thinks of Americans as rich), then we have failed them. If all they see in me is a nice person with lots of money, then I have failed them. I came home asking myself, “How can I let Christ transform me more thoroughly, and shine through me more brightly?”


In Beijing, home of the 2008 Olympics, I toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. A huge portrait of Mao hung from one building, repainted every year to keep it looking new. When asked about the June 4, 1989, our tour guide simply replied that she was too young to know anything about what happened there—leaving us with a curious and disturbing ellipsis in our introduction to China.

The “9999”  buildings/rooms of the Forbidden City, once the exclusive abode of emperors and their entourage, are now ghostly reminders of a bygone era, sparsely decorated, without vibrancy or much symbolic meaning for a modern China. I felt empty touring this great historical site, wondering what connection remained between the ancient dynasties and symbols and the modern communist culture. I was to feel empty often as we toured China, seeing and hearing about the great symbols from a bygone era alongside new skyscrapers and an improved standard of living for many, yet with no sense of purpose or meaning other than getting ahead for themselves and their nation.

The Temple for the God of Heaven excited me. I thought that perhaps here was evidence that the ancient Chinese had worshipped the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition under a different name. Apparently not. The Chinese God of Heaven was a fertility god, someone to whom the Emperor offered sacrifices in order to procure good crops. The worship of this god also provided a basis for a type of emperor cult, whereby the ruler was honored as the son of the God of Heaven.

When walking six miles on the Great Wall of China, a 4000 mile Wonder of the world, built to help protect China from northern invaders, I again felt a mixture of awe and emptiness. I was inspired by the beauty of the mountains, exhausted by the near vertical climbs and descents, and impressed by the massive accomplishment. I was also horrified thinking that an estimated 2-3 million people died building the wall. The wall played an important role in its day, but had little purpose for modern China. Why were we shown the wall, but given no reflection on what such choices meant for the Chinese people, especially all those who died?

In Xi’an (pronounced Shi-an), we got a chance to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, thousands of skillfully crafted, clay military figures buried under ground by the first emperor of China. Xin (pronounced Chin) unified the nation in 221 B.C., became ruler at age 13, and began creating these warriors then. The craftsmanship is amazing. Infantry, cavalry, archers, chariots, and horses were built and placed underground, because he thought that he would need an army in the afterlife. I could not get an answer as to how he thought this great terra cotta army would help, but he apparently he believed they would. He used 720,000 criminals and prisoners of war to build them and place them in position.

Meanwhile, he required local farmers to work half a year to provide food for himself and others in his court. One year after his premature death, and after one of his sons killed 17 of his brothers and other relatives to secure his succession, the peasants rose up in a violent revolt. The guide offered no commentary, but the peasants from the past did. They broke into his underground system and smashed almost all of the thousands of terra cotta figures, as evidence of their rage.

Shanghai was very impressive. The Bund—a riverside street lined with reconstructed buildings in the British style, first built after Great Britain forced its way into the city to set up commerce in the mid 19th century—was striking and beautiful. Across the river were huge, modern buildings, most of which have been built in the past decade or two. The largest is the Pearl TV tower, over 1500 feet high!

As China has become more prosperous over the past 10-15 years, many good things have been happening for the people. Many are still poor indeed, but I was told that the standard of living is improving markedly for many, fewer are going hungry, and more goods and services are becoming available for more people, even though the average person still doesn’t have a lot of money to spend.

Yet, buildings are going up at a breakneck pace and an increasing number of five star hotels are appearing in Shanghai and Beijing especially, and not just for foreigners. Market places are swarming with Chinese tourists, with only a smattering of Westerners to pay the marked up prices. Stores in tourist areas sell name brand clothing (or knockoffs) at American prices or higher. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are all there, too.

On the surface, Shanghai is becoming New York, with far more people. Modern China, especially in the urban areas we visited, looked very western in many ways. I was told that if I were to get out more into the country, especially into Tibet and other western regions I would see much more of the ancient Chinese culture, but where I was visiting, I saw the effects of globalization. In spite of great philosophical and religious differences between East and West, modern commercial China and America are starting to look more and more alike.

Is this a good thing?

Next week: Chinese Religion and Culture–Growing Spiritual Interest in a Religious Vacuum 

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