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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Sitting here at the "Darling Coffee Fort" on Shamian Dao. Shamian is an island in the Pearl River, which runs through Guangzhou on the south side. The community which surrounds Samuel Lamb's house church could be taken from the pages of National Geographic. It is the quintessential Cantonese neighborhood. But Shamian Dao is slower paced community. The landscape is dominated by large victorian architecture dating from the colonial period. Hard to believe this place could have survived all the cultural upheaval which has plagued this country since the early part of the Twentieth Century. The most imposing structure on Shamian Dao is the White Swan Hotel. I didn't stay at the White Swan Hotel; I stayed at the Youth Hostel across the street, because I'm cheap. But I did have the afternoon tea buffet there yesterday afternoon. The place is buzzing right now, because there is an Amway convention in town. And then there is the adoption crowd. Lots of people coming to pick up their new babies.

Yesterday morning, Fengwei and I took in the Tuesday morning service at Samuel Lamb's church. We spoke with him briefly after the service. I had read his testimony since the last time I was here, and understood a little better his feeling about the Three-Self Church of which he refuses to become a part.

I told him that I went to a Three-Self Church in Beijing. He said, "Three-Self Church no good!" I told him that I thought the Three-Self Church had changed since it's inception in the early fifties. The question, of course, is just how much it has changed.

Although the Communist Party would probably deny it, the TSPM was widely believed to be just the first step in the intent of the party to first neutralize, and ultimately eliminate Christianity as an influence in society.

But that has changed. The key year that sticks in my mind is 1989. Of course, the change was much more gradual than can be confined in one calendar year, but it was during that time period that, both in the Soviet Union and China, as well as in other areas of the Communist world, there developed a spirit of "resignation" among the ruling elite. Gorbachov expressed it this way:

"The Communists were stupid (remember, Gorbachev was a Communist) to take religion away from the people. Trying to take religion away from people is like trying to take vodka away from people." I have not heard this precise sentiment expressed in China, but the general attitude is very much on that order. This change has happened so gradually, that many, even in China, seem unaware of it. In fact, the well known "Cross" video series also misses this point. The second video contains some excellent historical information, but there is one point where the narrator says that the TSPM exists as a cover for China's desire to wipe out Christianity. This certainly appeared to be true in the early days of "New China," But the narration is spoken in the present tense, and as such, it is simply not accurate. The Communist Party is not intent on destroying Christianity. Official China has resigned itself to controling religion, which is now recognized as an inevitable part of culture. In today's China, this is manifested in several ways. On the campus where I teach, there is a Muslim cafeteria. This cafeteria has two rooms. One is for ordinary people who want to sample Muslim food, or who have come to favor some of the dishes usually identified with Muslim culture. The other room is reserved for Muslim minorities who are not supposed to eat with "infidels." The Han are not allowed to enter this room. If you can imagine a cafeteria where Han Chinese are strictly forbidden, and that in the capital city of China, then you are beginning to get a picture of how China deals with religion today. You see, Islam is accomodated because it is one of the "faiths" which are recognized as "normal" religions. There are several. Protestantism is one of them. Catholocism is too, as long as the Catholic church in question is not loyal to a foreign power (the Vatican).

How has this fundamental change affected the Three-Self Church? Well, in my experience, since the Three-Self church is clearly an attempt to control Protestant Christianity rather than to wipe it out, two significant things have happened. People who really were not interested in Christianity as an expression of genuine faith have left. And those Christians who really do want to go to Church to worship God have returned. Whatever you say about the Three-Self church, the bulk of people I have met in these churches are simple, Bible believing Christians.

When I mentioned this change to Samuel Lamb, he said, "The Three-Self Church is worse than liberal." He said that if he registered with the Three-self movement, he would not be allowed to preach about the second coming. Well, I can't argue that point, because I have heard that charge from several places, but I have never been able to verify it. And it certainly would be a proper justification for any preacher to refuse involvement. So Samuel Lamb does make some very good points about the Three-Self Church. But there is also something he misses, and that is that the Three-Self churches have become, in many cases, post-denominational evengelical communities.

I have a very high regard for people like Samuel Lamb. This guy spent fifteen years in the pit of a Shanxi coal mine during his twenty-year incarceration. He has paid the price. And he is spending his retirement years caring for the spiritual needs of hundreds of people. But what will become of these people when he is gone? I asked him that question. He said, "The Lord is coming soon."

I got up to leave, and Samuel Lamb asked me to pray before I left. He does that a lot. This is a wise man. He is not hesitant about soliciting prayer.

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