Reflections on a week in Beijing

I recently had the great privilege of visiting Beijing with a team from St Helen’s Bishopsgate, my home church in London, to encourage Christians in the workplace and to participate in certain activities of our partner church in Beijing.

Our week-long itinerary included (1) an evangelistic talk in Beijing’s central business district (国贸), (2) joining in the Christian small groups in various companies dotted across the city, and (3) participating in the small group bible studies of our partner church.

“Crazy”

If I had to sum the trip up in one word, it would be “crazy”… mostly in a good way!

It was not only the cultural aspects of Beijing that were crazy, like the sheer number of people on public transport (a.k.a. the Beijing Sardine Experience TM), the exotic food (e.g. Durian Pizza and 豆汁), or the fact that one could alight from a bus and be immediately hit by a motorcycle.

More than that, it was “crazy” to see God at work in Beijing to draw people to Him. Here are just two reflections on what I observed.

(1) God has an unstoppable plan for the world

Each morning, the team would meet to read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians together. Probably the most significant idea in Ephesians is God’s great plan to unite all things under the feet of Jesus (1.10, 22). This great plan unfolds through the church — God’s people — who often look weak, but according to Paul actually display the “manifold wisdom of God […] to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3.10). As the gospel is held forth by Christians — weak vessels (cf 2 Cor 4.7) — and as people are saved and added to their number, God’s wisdom and glory are magnified.

The amazing thing was this: each day, after meditating on God’s great plan in Ephesians, God graciously allowed us to see His plan in action before our very eyes as we went about our various activities in Beijing.

With a population of circa 22 million, the church can look and feel tiny compared to the sheer size of the sprawling city. Add to that the pressure from the government to water down the gospel, or to stop preaching it altogether: on one of the days we were there the government banned the sale of all bibles such that overnight it became impossible to buy a bible — not even on Tao Bao (the Chinese “Amazon”) on which you can quite literally buy anything under the sun (apparently, even a wife so I’m told!).

And yet, despite these odds, God is growing His church; His sheep hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and follow Him, as He calls them by name (John 10; cf 6:44).

We encountered so many people who had come to trust in Jesus in the last month or two, and many more for whom there was a real, tangible hunger to hear the gospel and to know Jesus more.

For example, at an evangelistic lunchtime event (where one of our team gave the talk and another shared her testimony), 50-60 people showed up, about half of whom (I learned later) were seekers and of whom 5-6 said that it was their first time hearing the gospel! When we split into small groups to discuss the talk, two of my group members said that they had just come to Christ on Easter Sunday — just three days before!

These numbers were staggering to me, but according to a pastor at our partner church, this was just another day at the office.

(2) His plan unfolds as the gospel is preached

The remarkable thing about all of this was precisely that what was being done was so unremarkable: as Christians shared the gospel with those around them, as they read the Scriptures with their peers, people who were once dead in their sins were made alive in Christ (cf Eph 2.5). No gimmicks, no smoke machines, no music videos; just the gospel: “while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.6).

This should not have surprised me, but it did. The New Testament is replete with fairly “non-glamorous” instructions. The Ephesians are told to pray for all the saints that they may be bold to preach the gospel (Eph 6.19). Timothy is charged with preaching the word (2 Tim 4). Most of all, Paul, the greatest evangelist in the history of the world, tells the Corinthian church that he did not come to them with lofty speech or wisdom, but sought to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2.1-5).

My time in Beijing showed me how, at least tacitly, I had become ashamed of the gospel. Even though the gospel seems weak in the world’s eyes, it is the power of God — 神的大能 — for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1.16).

I also saw how simple it was to share the gospel. Our team had the opportunity to train a few small groups on how to use Two Ways to Live (人生二路), a remarkably concise and comprehensive presentation of the good news of Jesus which I cannot commend more highly. (Just as an encouragement, I have since used the Two Ways to Live framework in both English and Mandarin to share the gospel with two taxi drivers, my sister, and my grandma!)

Conclusion

Beijing was a “crazy” (good) experience because I was graciously granted to see, in vivid technicolor, God’s glory and wisdom revealed through the unfolding of his great plan.

As the good news of God’s great love is proclaimed, sinners are ransomed, the church is built, and Jesus Christ is glorified. Although the gospel looks weak in the world’s eyes, it is the power of God to save.

And He is saving.

Not just in Beijing, but across the world He is gathering a people to Himself from every tribe, tongue and nation (cf Rev 7.9).

What a glorious plan — let’s get behind it.

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He came down

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

Christmas is great for a whole host of reasons: good food, mulled wine, Christmas markets, time spent with friends and family, presents (of course!), but best of all — the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation is a marvelous mystery. There is the “How” — how could the infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent God come down to Earth and take on finite, weak, human flesh? How could a mere baby, lying in a manger, uphold the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:1-3; cf Col 1:15-17)?

For me, however, the more poignant question has always been the “Why” — why would the perfect Son of God empty himself and take the form of a servant, born in human likeness (cf Phil 2:7)? Why would he enter our fallen world full of decay, suffering, pain and death — not least his own humiliating death on the cross of Calvary?

The latter question has been especially striking for me this year. 2017 has been a trying year: friends of mine in their prime diagnosed with life-changing illness; the shocking, sudden death of the sister of a colleague; and horrific acts of violence and terror, both close to home and further afield.

2017 also saw a close relationship of mine come to an end, caused primarily by my own sin. The sense of loss and regret has been palpable: I have at times felt an anguish like never before — a sustained bout of crushing pain in my chest (I suppose) like the onset of a cardiac arrest — and at other times a seething self-loathing.

For each of us, the world in which we live has the fingerprints of the Fall — decay, suffering, pain, and death. Things fall apart.

Which begs the question: why? Why would the perfect Son of God leave his throne of glory in Heaven to come to Earth, to enter our stricken, sin-infected world?

There are a number of reasons, but here is one which is of great comfort to me: he came down to identify with his people whom he saves. 

[Jesus is not] unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but [he] in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15–16)

Jesus sympathises with my weakness. He knows the frustrations of living in a fallen world. He knew sickness and pain. He knew the death of loved ones (Lazarus). He knew the anguish of betrayal by his closest friends (the Twelve). He knew loneliness and abandonment. And he knew the pain of death — his own, excruciating death, nailed to the cross.

He came down to die in our place, as our substitute. And in order to do this he had to — and chose to — come down in human form and lay his life down for his beloved. All this to save us to a glorious new future with him where there will no longer be any death, nor crying, nor pain any more (cf Rev 21:1-3).

When I feel acutely the frustrations of living in a fallen world, this truth is a bulwark against the waves of despair. I do not trust in a distant, impersonal god. Rather, he came down and entered my fallen world; he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3); he knows what I’m going through. Indeed, he endured far worse than I ever will.

Because of this I can draw near to his throne of grace and receive mercy and grace to help when I am in need (which is often!). And I can look forward with hope to the future, when he will return to restore everything.

You can too, because of Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

On music and nostalgia

A strange phenomenon happened to me recently

On two separate occasions, I started to listen again to singer-songwriters I used to listen to more than 10 years ago, but have not really since — Damien Rice and Corinne Bailey Rae.

Both times, I listened to familiar tunes from back then — tracks from the albums O (2002) and Corinne Bailey Rae (2006). (How awesome is Spotify by the way?)

And in both cases, I was magically transported back in time to my adolescent years. Not that I was somehow having vivid visions of past events, but rather that I felt familiar emotions from that period of my life. At times these emotions hit me really strongly, almost as if I had imbibed a potent potion.

There was a real sense of nostalgia about these songs.

I have heard it said that one often clings to the music they’ve listened to and grown to love in their adolescent years, because those are the years when one is going through the most emotionally significant moments in one’s life (what with hormones racing etc.). Music in those moments helps one to channel (or express) their emotions, and those songs end up leaving an indelible impression on the individual.

Isn’t it just uncanny how music is able to do that? It helps you to feel what the songwriter has put into the song, which I suppose is the straightforward bit; but it also helps you to channel your feelings into the song itself, such that together with your emotions these songs become part of your person.

And I guess that’s what happened to me these past two weeks. Those songs from the past reacquainted me with emotions from before, almost from a past life: past emotions which I had forgotten about, or perhaps even suppressed.

But more than that, those songs also helped me to channel the emotions that had been bottled up within me. Those songs from the past granted me the vocabulary to express the suppressed (negative) emotions of the present, which was a somewhat cathartic experience.

As someone who is rather emotionally unintelligent, I find myself utterly fascinated by the power (and danger) of music in this regard.

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A brief coda to this blog post: these past two weeks have also served to cement my view that the state of music has sorely declined in the last 10 years. I think this is true generally of all “pop” music, but Damien Rice and Corrine Bailey Rae are good cases-in-point. Their later albums have some good stuff (“The Greatest Bastard”, I’m looking at you) but nothing quite like the brilliance of and Corrine Bailey Rae. (But yeah please feel free to write this last paragraph off as the rant of a grumpy old man against the younger generation…)

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)

I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.

Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.

But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.

Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.

And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they

teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.

And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.

Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.

But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.

Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.

By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.

But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?

His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.

He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.

Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy.

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley