Mike's Sunday Letter

In honor of 6 years of ministry with the Chinese, one of my favorite photos: with Wang Ke last October

--with personal notes
  • Jie leaves for China this week.  I take her to Chicago on Tuesday and she will fly out Wednesday morning.  She returns June 28.
  • I'll be traveling several places this week.  Thursday is an all day conference meeting in Springfield.  And next weekend I will make a short visit to Madison, Wisconsin to spend some time at Holy Wisdom Monastery.
  • As I await the start of my official tenure at Mattoon (July 1) I am working with both the Urbana and Mattoon congregations these days.  (I also did "double-duty" 15 years ago when I transitioned to Grace.)  While I am not conducting worship services for the Quest/Grace congregation, I am still tending to pastoral care, collecting my sermons, papers, and Bible studies for an archival website, and bringing closure to the many pastoral relationships I have enjoyed here.  The worship services and language classes for Chinese ended this week (because of the end of the school semester) but I will continue to organize some short trips and fellowship groups for them through June.   

May 15 2016
Shocked By the Chinese!
Today was my last worship service at Grace Church with the Chinese.  So I'm a little sad right now.  

For six years I have been sharing "Jesus stuff" with Chinese scholars and their families.  We have gathered each Sunday to sing songs, pray, tell Bible stories, explore the deeper meanings of the Bible, and sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."  I have ended every worship service by "blessing" each person present.
In the six years since I got involved in this work, over 400 different Chinese have participated in our Sunday programs:  the majority belonging to the Communist Party.  Only a few who attended our worship services were "officially" Christian. A significant number of our worshippers had pretty much settled on atheism.  

But at Grace Church, everyone came with an openness regarding the Bible, an appreciation for the songs of faith, a wonder about the phenomenon of prayer, and an affirmation for the love they found in the fellowship.  

Nearly all who participated in our ministry were here short term and have now returned to China.  And as a consequence of this ministry, many of my closest and dearest friends now live half a world away from me.  The distance between us is a constant heartache. 
Ministry with the Chinese has been the most challenging and difficult work I have done in nearly 44 years of ministry.  It has been more demanding than youth work, church conflict, congregational mergers, administrative morass, or officiating at funerals. I got into the Chinese ministry to change others.  They changed me.  
One reason my work with Chinese has been so hard is the challenge of language.  I don't speak Chinese.  And most native Chinese do not readily navigate the hazards of a typical American's discourse.  Our rapid speaking, lack of enunciation, use of idioms, and assumptions that everyone understands our cultural allusions leaves most Chinese in the dust.  (Oops, there I go...using an idiom!) 

Although the Chinese in Urbana know lots of English (especially compared to the number of Chinese words I know) most only catch about 20-40% of what the typical American speaker says.  The first Christians, on the first Pentecost, spoke in languages that their foreign neighbors understood.  But until the Holy Spirit helps me out a little with my Chinese, I'll just have to do my best to speak to my friends in English:  slowly, distinctly, without idioms, with lots and lots of non-verbal gestures.
Of course, if my Chinese friends have sometimes trouble understanding me, they tend to get me back.  Even when the pronunciation is expert, Chinglish gets in the way.  (Chinglish is when a Chinese speaker doesn't quite get the English right. )

Several years back one of the Chinese guys kept telling me that my "bubbles" were defective.  I couldn't figure out what he meant.  I even began to wonder if this was some kind of challenge to my manhood.  But I finally figured out that he was trying to tell me that two light "bulbs" had burned out.  Whew!  That was a tough one.
Chinese ministry has also been challenging to me because of the clear and honest questions that are raised about Christian faith.  My friend Wang Ke, 12 years old, (see photo above) wants to know why God unleashed such massive destruction in the days of Noah, even killing innocent animals.  "If God is so smart, powerful, and loving, why didn't he come up with something better than that flood?"  Good question.  I get about two questions a week like this  (times six years!)  

My knowledge of the Bible, my grasp of philosophy, my faithfulness to logic, my rootedness in Christian ethics, and my ability to articulate of theological matters has been stretched and exercised and tested over and over.  Even American Christians (who are not nearly as demanding) can probably tell the difference between how I talk now and how I talked six years ago.
Chinese ministry has not only presented me with barriers of logic and language, it has also brought me to the precipice of a nearly impossible cultural and political chasm.  No country is less "western" than China (except perhaps its rogue cousin, North Korea.)  The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s expunged everything American.  And after that, when China and the U.S. did start to interact again, the Chinese were motivated by our money and our technology, not American religion or politics. 
But if you are going to hang around me for my money and technology, you will be sorely disappointed.  All I really have to offer anyone is my poor imitation of Jesus (joy, justice, compassion, kindness) and my fierce belief that no government is bigger than God.  Chinese who migrate here are drawn by the potential for money and education.  They do not come for the likes of me. 
But over these years, an amazing number of Chinese have lingered around Grace Church and the programs Jie and I have offered.  Most keep coming back.  Many stay in touch, long after they return to their homes and jobs in China. It is one of those strange "God" things...I reckon.  
I got into this whole Chinese ministry thing because I thought I could help.  But in the end, I really couldn't answer many of their questions...other than to ask, "How do you say 'mystery' in Chinese?"  I convinced none of my Chinese friends to totally see things my way.  

But while they often had trouble accepting some of my ideas, they were open to accepting the love and loyalty God gave me to give to them.  And they gave me love and loyalty in return, a hundred fold.  I thought I was being Christ to them.  They ended up being Christ to me. 
We had 22 at our last Chinese worship service today.  Some of them asked me whether I will continue to do Chinese ministry in my new town.  But alas, the bishop is sending me to a place with virtually no Chinese.  

Honestly:  I am angry that all the things I have learned about Chinese ministry will now go to waste.  

But suddenly, as I write this, I am caught short in my righteous indignation.  The Chinese ministry will continue in Mattoon:  not as a ministry to the Chinese, but a ministry from them.  

These lovely and loving people, for whom I have been pastor these six years, have actually been pastor to me too.  They have loved me, nurtured me, encouraged me, challenged me, and taught me.  

Whatever institutional religion they may formally assign (or not assign) to themselves, it matters not.  For they have been Christ to me.  And now, so fully blessed by these six years, I am sent forth to pass it on...to my next flock.  In God's mystery, I pray fervently that the Chinese flock here, and the folks familiar to me, so scattered a world away, may also be nurtured and protected and saved from all ill.   

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801