Sitting in the dirty police cell we discussed what we would say. “Don’t admit anything,” the team leader said. “They can’t prove anything.” Three of us had been making our way north from Guangzhou to Xi’an distributing bible tracts that connected readers with the underground church. We would go out at night dressed in dark clothes and leave them all around rural villages and towns before moving on the next day. If travelling by bus, we would also drop the occasional tract out of the rear window since many people travelled on foot along the roads. This was how we were caught.
Before being questioned I thought of this verse, “Whenever you are arrested … do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
We were questioned separately. I denied any knowledge of the tracts. Then the interpreter asked me “What is your religion?” Aha! I thought. Religion? What a dirty word! I don’t have a religion. I have a living faith, a personal relationship!
So I said, “I don’t have a religion.” I thought I was clever.
Back in Australia when sharing my experience in China with a friend he said, “Wow Dave! You kind of denied your faith.” Enter doubts, shame, guilt, emptiness, failure.
What happened? Where was the Holy Spirit helping me with what to say? Maybe I don’t have it. Maybe I’ve never had it. Is it even real? From that point on a sense of failure as a Christian has followed me. I withdrew from any involvement in churches (merely a spectator but never contributing). And as I withdrew I started to ask some big questions about my faith and the church. How is what we are doing here relevant to anyone outside the church anyway? How do worship songs help my alcoholic friend? How will a bigger, more modern building with a state of the art sound system serve my roommate seeking asylum? What are we saying each Sunday? Do we actually believe it? And then, of course, the endless list of abuses by those in the church that have been held under a spotlight in recent times. To be honest, I haven’t really wanted to be associated with the church.
Debie Thomas suggests in her article ‘Out of her poverty’ that when Jesus tells his disciples that not one stone of the temple will be left on another, perhaps he too is feeling angry at the injustice perpetrated by this institution. Leading up to this point he had expressed much frustration with the religious leaders. He raged through the temple with a whip; said of the scribes, “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers”; and watched a vulnerable widow give all she had to that very same institution. So maybe it’s ok to feel angry.
Sometimes it feels like we see early birth pains of the world all around us. In verse 13 Jesus tells us to be on our guard and stand firm. I hope we know what it is we’re standing firm for. I’m not sure I did in China and I think I’ve been in the midst of a process where I’ve been trying to clarify what it is I stand for ever since. This has involved stripping back and uncovering assumptions and ideas that I have adopted in my very churched upbringing. Things which I haven’t thought about, questioned and accepted myself. The stones have been tumbling. In a way maybe the stones have been tumbling for the broader western church as well.
Despite my many doubts and scattered stones, one thing I feel ok with is having Jesus as my yardstick. His words, his actions, his response to injustice, his life. That gives me something to stand firm on. In these times, may we not be deceived by all the panic and noise but be followers of Jesus.
A reflection on Mark 13:1-11, 28-29 given to Sanctuary, 18 November 2018 (Year B Proper 28, BP23 (extended)) © Dave Walz, 2018. Image credit: Alison Sampson. Image shows the Western Wall, which is all that remains of the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 C.E.