Thursday, August 31, 2017

Many Will Come from the East: The Explosive Growth of the Church in China

"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 8:11

One of the most dramatic and startling revivals happening in the world right now is in China. Yes, China--the avowedly atheist, communist country that many see as the USA's greatest geopolitical rival. Within a few short years, it will have more Protestant Christians than the USA does (if it doesn't already). Within two decades, China may well have a Christian population that exceeds the entire population of the United States! When I was growing up, amid the ferment of evangelical speculation about the end of the world, it was often conjectured that China would be the source of one of the great armies of Antichrist that would issue forth in the end times. Now, however, it looks like China will likely be the source of a great army of Christian missionaries, ready to lay down their lives to take the Gospel to the last remaining unreached people in the world.

An ancient Chinese Christian monument
The history of Christianity in China is ancient, going back far before the faith ever reached the shores of North America. In the 700s AD, the Church of the East (that is, the Christian populations living in what is now Iraq and Iran) was experiencing a Golden Age of missions work, even though it was now under the rule of a newly-arrived set of Muslim conquerors. The Church of the East sent out missionaries far and wide throughout Asia, and succeeded in establishing the Gospel in both Tibet and eastern China. The faith took root there for several hundred years before blinking out again in the face of persecution and separation from the global network of the Body of Christ. But the Gospel would make a return during the Age of European Exploration, when Catholic missionaries again brought the Christian faith to Chinese shores. In the 1800s, Protestant missionaries also began pouring in (my own church contributed a prominent member of this early wave of missionaries, John Johnson), and the Christian church took root once again. It produced noted Christian saints, like Watchman Nee (author of a classic devotional book, The Normal Christian Life). Though it appeared to be nearly wiped out by the crisis of the Chinese Revolution and World War II, as well as by later Communist persecution, Christianity persevered. Many Christians held onto their faith and secretly passed it down to their children. New networks of churches began to radiate out across the country throughout the late 20th century: the Three-Self Patriotic Church (the only one officially approved by the government, under heavy limitations), the Roman Catholic Church, and the vibrant, ever-multiplying house churches who represent much of the Evangelical and Pentecostal presence in China. A remarkable picture of these house churches can be found in the pages of Brother Yun's popular account, The Heavenly Man.

China is now experiencing a continued and rising wave of interest in Christianity. Though the total population of China is massive (which is necessary to remember when considering the large numbers of Christians therein), the explosive growth of Christianity there has still been remarkable. The evangelical presence in China has grown by more than 200% in the period between 1990 and 2010. It now has at least 58 million Protestants, more even than Brazil, the growing southern powerhouse of Protestant Christianity. By 2025, China will have more Protestants than the USA. And by 2030, it will have nearly 250 million total Christians, making it the largest Christian country in the world.  In terms of official membership, there are now more Christians in China than there are communists. Even the communist government itself, while still persecuting many believers (especially the house church movements), has softened its stance somewhat. It is the owner of Amity Press, which publishes and exports Bibles in more than 75 languages. With more than 50 million Bibles published, China has become one of the Bible-printing capitals of the world. 

And it's not just the numbers that make Chinese Christianity a remarkable thing. I've had several personal contacts with Chinese Christians (including Brother Yun), and have been deeply struck with their Christian maturity. One Chinese woman with whom I attended seminary left an impression on me as one of the most incredible saints I have ever known, with a presence that was irradiated by a paradoxical mix of gentle grace and spiritual power, fueled by prayer. If the USA was the vanguard of the global missionary force in the 20th century, it now seems likely that China will take that role in the 21st. The house church networks have already begun fostering a culture of missionary fervor, and have impressive plans to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ known throughout the Muslim world. 

A common bit of pessimistic humor in the US is to wryly warn that we should all be learning Chinese, because they may be the world's next superpower. From a Christian point of view, though, we can say the same thing from an optimistic slant: we should all be learning Chinese, so that we can be a part of one of the greatest moves of God in our world today.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"A Hymn to God the Father," by John Donne

Though I try to write a new original poem to post here each week, there are some weeks that overwhelm me with other labors; this is one of those weeks. In lieu of my own offering, here's a better one: John Donne's poetic heartcry of grief and gratitude in the face of his own sin.

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
     Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
     And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
          For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
     Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
     A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
          For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
     My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
     Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
          I fear no more.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Photo of the Week

He only is the Maker of all things near and far,
He paints the wayside flower, He lights the evening star.
The winds and waves obey Him, by Him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, his children, He gives the daily bread.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, oh, thank the Lord,
For all His love!

- Verse 2 of the hymn "We Plough the Fields and Scatter," M. Claudius

Monday, August 28, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Christ's answer to our question 'why?' is above all a call, a vocation. Christ does not give us an abstract answer, but rather he says, 'Follow me!' He offers us the opportunity through suffering to take part in his own work of saving the world."

- Pope John Paul II

(Painting: "Domine, Quo Vadis?" by Annibale Carracci, 1602)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 2:1-13

James 2:1-13 

2:1-7 – Once again, James rightly diagnoses one of the commonest failings of human nature: our willingness to judge people at a glance, to treat them better or worse based solely on outward appearances, or on such trivial considerations as wealth and worldly status. The scene James describes is entirely believable—a rich man and a poor man enter a church: the rich man is attended to, given a comfortable and prominent seat, while the poor man is at best ignored, or at worst, told to take a place of insignificance. While contemporary American culture is not quite the same as ancient Greco-Roman cultures in consideration of wealth and class, human nature has certainly not changed. In our egalitarian, cheer-for-the-underdog mentality, we may well not give the ostentatiously dressed rich man preference over the poor person in our congregation, but we certainly do fall into the trap of giving more prominence to persons of fame than is their due, and to ignoring those who are suspected of addictions or mental instability in addition to their poverty. For instance, if New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wandered into our church service, it is almost guaranteed that he would receive far more positive attention than a homeless man who, in his manner of behavior, seemed a little off. But James wants to press us on this point: should we actually be acting in that way? Is there anything intrinsic to the nature of Tom Brady as a human being that makes him more valuable than the homeless man? The clear answer, from Christian theology, is “No.” Now, our church members would of course want to give Mr. Brady a warm welcome and to express our thanks for the innumerable sporting heroics that he has achieved for our little corner of the world; but if we do so, we must take great lengths to ensure that the homeless man too is also given a warm welcome and granted the loving attention that he deserves, simply because he is a fellow human being, created in God’s image and lavished with God’s love. But James doesn’t even stop there: he goes so far as to suggest that, in terms of moral virtue, there’s a good chance that the poor man will be more laudable than the rich. As we already covered in the commentary on 1:9-11, poverty gives one more opportunity for the pursuit of virtue than does wealth, so it’s a decent bet that poorer people will be more virtuous, on the whole, than richer people (a stereotype that modern social science appears to support). So, James says, if you’re going to show special favor to anyone, you should show it to the poor man—such are the ones that God has “chosen…to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom,” whereas the rich are more likely to magnify themselves rather than God, and to greedily sue for even more wealth than they already have. James describes our natural behavior of making assumptions about people based on these appearances of wealth and class as discrimination, and he says that we have “become judges with evil thoughts.” But we are not in the office of judge over anyone else, and it’s a good thing we’re not: we make a rather poor job of it. God alone is the judge, for only he truly sees beyond appearances, to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is this: God does not show favoritism among his children, and so neither should we.

2:8-13 – James continues his point by quoting one of Jesus’ favorite Old Testament commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which the Lord had called one of “the greatest commandments,” and which James describes as “the royal law.” James then makes clear the seriousness of showing favoritism. Many Christians would simply shrug off this behavior, claim that it’s just a natural human instinct to show a little bit of favoritism, and that it’s not really a big deal, as long as we are at least trying to work on overcoming our failure to love all of our neighbors to the fullest extent. After all, it’s not like ignoring the weird homeless guy who makes us uncomfortable is the same as murdering him, right? Hold on there, James says. In a certain sense, it is exactly like murdering him. Loving our neighbors is a law of God in the same way that the commandment against murdering is a law of God. Breaking either one leaves you with the status of a lawbreaker, in exactly the same way. Here James agrees with one of the principles of Paul’s theology: everyone has broken the law, and thus stands in need of God’s grace. But James has a slightly different focus: while Paul immediately shifts from the problem of our status as lawbreakers to the grace offered through Jesus Christ, James shifts to a slightly different point, but no less true: we really ought not to keep breaking the law! So, now that we know that favoritism turns us into transgressors of the whole law of God, one of the things we must do (in addition to accepting God’s grace to right the internal wrongs that we can’t right ourselves) is to stop breaking the law. We must remember that God’s good law is there for our protection, for our freedom, and that our life stands under the judgment of that law. Thankfully, of course, we have the mercy of God, demonstrated through the cross, which “triumphs over judgment.” Though we are lawbreakers, we will not bear the full punishment of our deeds, since Christ has already borne them for us. But because we have received mercy, we too need to be givers of mercy, not of judgment. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “As you judge, it will be judged to you.” If we are being judgmental against others, we need to realize that our own lives will be analyzed in a similarly harsh light one day. James agrees: “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” Though the New Testament is clear in many places that our status of salvation will not be in question at the Judgment, because we are saved by God’s grace through the faith of Jesus Christ; but it is also clear that we nevertheless will also face a judgment of sorts, a weighing of our lives, and a believer who had lived their lives in a spirit of harsh judgmentalism toward others cannot expect to receive a favorable hearing on that day. James reminds us at the very end of the fact that we are recipients of God’s lavish mercy, which triumphs over judgment—should we not then also be merciful toward others?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

My God, I pray that I may so know you and love you that I may rejoice in you. And if I may not do so fully in this life, let me go steadily on to the day when I come to that fullness [...] Let me receive that which you promised through your truth, so that my joy may be full.

- Anselm

Friday, August 25, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 7: Swan

(Full links to the Theological Bestiary series can be found by clicking the "Ornitheology" option in the Full Series list on the blog's sidebar)

Swans are widely acclaimed as among the most beautiful birds in the world. And they are. Other birds may be more colorful, have fancier plumage, or a more striking aspect. But there is an elegant grace about swans, a purity that, in and of itself, amounts to beauty. They have been appreciated for their elegance throughout the centuries, and have long been held as a powerful symbol of Christian truth. But before we dive into that, here's a few interesting facts about swans that you might not have known:

- There are six species of swans in the world, four of which represent the pure-white, northerly birds that most people think of. The Mute Swan of Europe (which has an orange knob on its bill) is the most familiar of these, as it has been widely domesticated and is often found in city parks throughout the world. Three other white swans migrate back and forth toward the arctic regions of the northern hemisphere: Whooper Swans (Eurasia), Trumpeter Swans (North America), and Tundra Swans (the latter of which has sometimes been referred to by two other names: Whistling Swans for those that occur in North America, and Bewick's Swans for those that occur in Eurasia). In the southern hemisphere, there are two more swans, both of different coloration: the Black Swan of Australia (which can also be found elsewhere now, since it was exported as an ornamental bird), and the Black-Necked Swan of South America.

- They are among the heaviest flying birds in the world, with some specimens registering slightly more than thirty pounds (by contrast, most of the large eagles in the world are in the ten-to-fifteen-pound range). The wingspan of a Trumpeter Swan can approach ten feet in the largest specimens. There was once a captive Mute Swan that would have easily held the record for the heaviest flying bird, at 51 pounds, but it was unclear if that particular bird could actually manage to get airborne anymore.

- Swans are one of the bird species that tend to form monogamous, lifelong relationships, and so they have been used as a symbol of faithfulness or of love (and in that guise often appear in classical art with Aphrodite/Venus).

- In medieval England, Mute Swans were considered the property of the Crown. It required a special license to raise and sell swans. There was even a royal officer, the Swan Master, commissioned for the enforcement of these laws.

- Swans have long been central symbols in many works of art. Mythological stories about swans abound, including Zeus' transformation into a swan in his seduction of Leda (of which many classical paintings were made); the legend used by Hans Christian Andersen for his story "The Wild Swans"; and the widespread north-European myth of the swan maidens, a version of which forms the basis of Tchaikovsky's famous Swan Lake. One of the most popular authors of children's books, E. B. White, wrote a major novel about these birds: The Trumpet of the Swan (it was this blogger's favorite book for several years during his childhood). Swans have also featured large in poetry, as in Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole," where the poet cries out, "I have looked upon those brilliant creatures / And now my heart is sore."

- One particularly entrenched legend about swans is that of the "swan song" - the belief that a swan is mostly silent throughout its life, but, at the moment of death's approach, will give voice to a beautifully musical song. "The wild swan's death-hymn took the soul / Of that waste place with joy / Hidden in sorrow" (Tennyson, from "The Dying Swan"). This belief in swan's habitual silence, at least until death, is one of the reasons why the widespread European swan is named the "Mute Swan" (despite the fact that it can make a variety of noises, including hissing and grunting). Anyone who has been around other varieties of swan can attest to the fact that they are certainly not silent (as evidenced by their names: "Trumpeter" and "Whooper"). Though Mute Swans do not "sing" when dying, there is a slight possibility that the other European swan, the Whooper, may form the basis of the myth, which goes all the way back to ancient Greece. In any case, the legend has gone into popular culture, and a "swan song" may now refer to any final performance or accomplishment.

The swan's connection to Christian symbolism focuses largely on the bird as an icon of purity, though there are sometimes allusions made to the "swan song" legend and its parallel to Christ's passion. In the same way that swans were thought to remain silent, and then to cry out at the moment of death, so too Christ was silent during his trials and tortures, until finally crying out to God from the cross just before he died. The swan can also appear as the symbol of a particular saint, such as Martin Luther or Hugh of Lincoln, who are often accompanied by swans in paintings.

Usually, though, when the swan appears in Christian art, it is acting as a symbol of purity. In the same way that a swan's plumage is uniformly white, so too Christians are washed white through the cleansing of the blood of Christ, which takes away the stain of our sins. 

Below are renditions of two famous musical pieces inspired by swans (the theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and Camille Saint-Saens' "The Swan"). As you listen to them, or whenever you might happen to see a swan, give thanks for the great truth of our salvation: that we have been rendered pure and holy, free of any stain of sin, because of the redemption wrought by Christ.