We were already almost halfway through our time living abroad as a family. But we had not yet experienced the famous “underground” Chinese church. That was about to change.
Picture this Scene
At least 200 people had gathered in a large, inauspicious room. Suddenly 400+ eyes were upon us. Under those eyes, dozens of smiles broke out, along with squeals of excitement from some of the little children. Some were simply curious and perhaps a bit shocked. To this day, I don’t know if the congregation had been prepped about our arrival or not.
Directed toward the front by friendly greeters, we made our way to our seats. Our university friends Carissa, Cora and Sheryl sat among us and interpreted for us what was going on.
Up front, the pastor exuded a compelling and genuine charisma. We sat in frigid temperatures with no heating in the facility. But Pastor Ren cultivated a growing warmth in the room. He shared about the need Christian believers have to “stand firm” in the face of trials. He encouraged us to look to New Year’s as a time to recommit ourselves to Jesus.
A Common Heart
These Chinese Christian believers cling to the same Hope we do. While we express ourselves using different words and hail from vastly diverse backgrounds, we share a common heart.
After Pastor Ren’s message, a group of bundled toddlers expressed that heart as they belted out “Yesu Ai Wo” (耶稣爱我– Jesus Loves Me) in amazing precision (with hand motions). Cuteness to make a heart swell with delight. So too, a group of elderly women, voices alternately gravelly and squeaky, expressed that joy as they turned their gaze upward in song.
It was magical, this New Year’s “Welcome to 2010” gift we received.
Then it was Our Turn
As Carissa introduced us, I could not help but think how this would likely be the only time we’d be with these Chinese Christian believers this side of heaven. This New Year’s Day 2010. I took a mental snapshot of the crowd; I close my eyes today, this New Year’s Day 2018, and can still recall some of those faces – especially the smiles.
Among those faces sat acne-riddled middle schoolers, not so different from their peers anywhere around the world. Jittery little ones, full of an exuberance, found it difficult to remain in their seats.
High schoolers and college-aged attendees – some half asleep even in the cold, others with eager ears – made me realize Christianity’s message continues to be a fresh wind blowing through the Chinese landscape. Scattered among them sat octogenarians with leathered faces; their eyes surely had witnessed horrors I could only imagine.
Dale led with guitar and Justin, our oldest, accompanied on his recently acquired cello. Twelve-year-old Erika held the alto, while I carried the soprano melody as we sang “It is Good to Praise the Lord” and “In Christ Alone.” Even nine-year-old Luke – chimed in without reserve.
We sat down. One of our university friends leaned over and told us, “You blessed everyone here with your songs, but we do not have the tradition to clap.” Many smiles and nods later confirmed her words.
Inauspicious is Best
This gathering took place in the most inauspicious of places – one I believe Jesus would have liked. But the love filling that place proved so tangible and overflowing, knowing no bounds of language or culture. Warm smiles surrounded us. As our eyes met, there was a “knowing,” a sense of eternity in the present, a clear bond of connection.
After the service, most of which we didn’t understand from a strict linguistic perspective, Carissa, Cora and Sheryl led us to the courtyard, where we would “break bread” (or, shall we say, rice?) together.
The moment was much like water to our parched souls. For we missed such regular gatherings – especially those we could be part of as a family. We had not yet found a church we could attend in our Chinese city.
This experience was such a treat for our family. Our children were really touched by the warmth and joy among the Christian believers there. Perhaps it was the first time for them to feel that way in China, and it ushered in a great sense that many other gifts lay ahead in 2010 much like this one.
Fast Forward to the NOW
When I reflect on this 2010 New Year’s Day experience now, as we begin 2018, I am struck by how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.
Somehow, we all continue to have this hope of a fresh start with a new year. We believe – often mistakenly – things will be different. There’s this type of magical (and human-constructed) line between the years. The ball drops. Many people vow to change. Some are successful, but most are not.
In the U.S. – and throughout much of the world – 2017 has been a particularly acrimonious year. I’m hoping for a better 2018. But I realize my hope needs to be grounded in something greater than feeling or resolve. And that’s why New Year’s Day 2010 stands out for me.
We tasted that Hope – across languages, across cultures, in the freezing cold, through the joys of sharing song and meal, in the squeals of toddlers and the warm eyes of elderly people whose life experience is so different from my own. And yet, this “differentness” doesn’t matter.
Indeed, as I place my hope in the Author of Hope, I find what binds us together as human beings is so much greater than that which divides.
And I pray for another New Year’s unlike any other.
Do you have a special New Year's memory ? What do YOU look forward to in 2018?