It was my first Sunday back in church since I returned from China. I had missed three weeks in a row including the weekend I spent in prayer and solitude at the beach before departing Portland. It was wonderful to see my own community of believers again, but to be honest there were some mixed feelings.
On one hand, I am deeply grateful for this large church which has become a place of healing and growth. I love Rick’s preaching (and anyone else who is in the pulpit) and the church’s commitment to mission. I love our home community and the depth of relationships I experience there. Its support of the arts has reawakened the creative side of me. The School of Theology is a perfect place for me to exercise my teaching gifts and share how I do life with God. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that God led Jon and me to Imago Dei Community five years ago.
On the other hand, there are great advantages to being a smaller church, which is mostly what I observed in Beijing. Every person matters. No one is invisible. Every gift of the body is critical to its survival. Even though Mao Zedong was the one who liberated women from misogyny – Mao was the one who said “women hold up half the sky” - the church has benefited from this. Women serve alongside men by teaching, preaching and administrating. They don’t have time to debate gender equality. Instead they assume it because everyone is needed as they focus and serve in the midst of very difficult circumstances.
Discipleship is automatic and always in high gear because growth and commitment are a given rather than an option. And by necessity, leaders are raised from within the community, often after minimal time and training. The leaders are identified by a willing and teachable heart and a commitment to the community. They are committed to team leadership, being called co-workers rather than elders, pastors or deacons. They avoid exalting any one person from becoming a main leader or powerful figure in the church. Visions of grandeur or fame or wealth were not on the minds of those I met, contrary to what I saw in Uganda. This is from my own limited observations and conversations with the Chinese believers so I know that somewhere in China there are exceptions to the above descriptions.
I’ve been trying to understand why I experienced a level of discontentment at Imago prior to leaving, but felt deep contentment and excitement in Beijing. Perhaps it’s because Beijing sounds more exciting than Portland for now but it would eventually lose its thrill if I end up going back more often. Then again, maybe God is calling me to Beijing and not to Portland. Or maybe I’m tired of American church politics or debates that seem to trigger insecurities, discourage parts of Christ’s body or contribute to a lack of balance in the church. Perhaps the condition of the churches in Beijing has clarified for me what is really important and has put things in perspective. Probably it’s all of the above.
I anticipate a period of processing what I experienced in China in light of what I currently experience in Portland. It happened before when I got back from Uganda. I’m sure it’s necessary this time too. After Uganda, my processing led to a conviction that if I ever went overseas again, my small part in the Kingdom would be the training and teaching of church leaders. Having experienced that in China, the conviction is now certain. The location is not.
As I sat in church Sunday and listened to Rick preach on Jacob, my ears perked up. I have always described my life with God as being similar to Jacob’s. When God asks me to do something, I usually resist and end up “wrestling” with Him in prayer until I submit. My typical response is to go “kicking and screaming” into God’s will. Funny, I also have a small limp, except it’s from falling off the roof five years ago.
But Rick hasn’t gotten to that story in Jacob’s journey yet. Sunday’s message revolved around Jacob’s escape from Esau and his “stairway” dream. As Rick worked his way through the passage, it occurred to me that I had another connection with Jacob. I had never noticed Jacob’s response to his dream before:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (Gen. 28:20-22)
Like Jacob, my initial prayer of belief as a teenager came with conditions. I remember clearly what I was thinking as I said that “prayer.” If there really was a God, then He had a perfect will for my life, a will that must include success (I shared this “success” motivation in an earlier blog). I would accept Jesus as my Savior because I wanted that perfect will. Forgiveness from sin was secondary, especially since I didn’t feel very sinful.
Did I really become a Christian that night? I believe so – I experienced some immediate changes. It was an imperfect faith, but it was enough to establish a relationship with God through Christ. The rest of my journey would entail a constant correction of my initial theology, just as God accepted Jacob’s small faith and did not correct him in the moment after his response to the dream. Jacob’s correction in theology happened through Laban and Esau.
My journey of failure and correction as well as growth and discovery has been long. But just recently, God spoke to my heart after a time of reflection on the last eighteen months in which I learned to rest in Him. During those months, Psalm 46 became my guide as I learned to “be still and know” that God was God. I had to come to a special place, an “in-between place,” as Rick framed it in his message Sunday, where I truly believed that He delighted in me even if I did nothing with the rest of my life.
On this particular day of reflection, God reminded me of my motivation in receiving Christ as my Savior, the motivation of wanting His perfect will, what He had to offer by way of meaning and purpose. It was then I received a deep peace and an affirmation in the Spirit that my motivation to follow Christ had changed in two significant ways. First, through failure and repentance I had come to understand the cross of Christ and my need for a Savior. Second, through rest and repentance I had come to desire God above all else, above His perfect will, above my purpose for life. This in-between place has been transformed into a sacred place, which is what I believe happened to Jacob as he wrestled God for the last time before meeting Esau again.
I know I probably fall back into conditional faith here and there, but I’m finding it easier to find that sacred place and avoid the in-between place. My kicking and screaming is less frequent and less prolonged. I’m still a Jacob who wrestles with God, but then I feel my “limp” and remember to let go of what I think is God’s will and hang tight onto God Himself.
So back to my discontentment…all of those feelings are centered in what I do. But I realize that deep contentment does not come from discovering what I am to do in God’s kingdom, but it comes from holding tight to God Himself and knowing I am secure in Christ. However my journey turns out, especially after this brief trip to Beijing, I am assured that as long as I cling to Christ, the journey will be just as God wills.