I remember vividly a painting on the wall of the Sunday School room at the Church I attended whilst at university. It presented a Jesus with translucent white skin surrounded by children of the Empire. This is one of the challenges Christian missionaries have traditionally encountered in China, and no doubt many other countries; the perception that Christianity is a Western idea, just for Westerners.
In some ways, as Western goods and products become coveted goods in China, this challenge is being transformed into a blessing as more and more—especially young—people are attracted into churches by this very perception. The Church I attend in Wuhan holds a weekly English-language service, which is attended mostly by Chinese people and is followed by an English Corner, which attracts people who are not Christian and openly declare they are not interested in exploring faith, but come merely to practice English.
One of the most exciting ways of challenging this perception of Jesus I have encountered recently is through art and the Chinese-born artist He Qi (pronounced Huh Chee). His paintings are full of joy and humour and draw inspiration from traditional Chinese art forms. He says he takes particular inspiration from the simple and beautiful art of the rural people of China and from traditional Buddhist artwork. According to his website, ‘He hopes to help change the 'foreign image' of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and, at the same time, to supplement Chinese art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times’.
His story seems as inspirational as his art work. He describes how growing up during the Cultural Revolution he was sent to a communal farm to un-do the ‘negative effects’ of his parent’s intellectual careers by hard labour. He escaped from this by entering, and winning, a competition to paint a portrait of Chairman Mao—the beginning of his career in art.
As we enter the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, his painting Adoration of the Magi, painted in 2001, gives a new perspective on this integral aspect of the Christmas story. The painting draws on the traditions of the Western Church, such as showing three wise men, but also on the symbolism and colours indicative of Beijing Opera.
People’s interest in the Epiphany down the years has added many facets and insights to the story that are not in the biblical account. Once the magi arrive at Jesus’ location, we are told the scantest details without comment:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (NIV, St. Matthew Ch. 2, vs. 11)
An unspecified number of wise men have become three kings and the gifts they brought have been given defined meanings: gold ‘for a king,’ frankincense ‘for God,’ and myrrh as a sign of suffering and death. This has become a kind of fact.
Early Christian thinkers seem to have had a variety of different interpretations of what these symbols meant. Just as He Qi’s painting is trying to change Chinese perceptions of Christianity, perhaps his new perspective on the magi can also help us to lay aside our ‘We Three Kings’ concept for a few moments and to think more widely about what the symbolism of these symbols was.
The Chinese Church seems to stress the importance of the Old Testament concept of tithing and often sermons in the Church I attend remind the congregation of the need to tithe, giving ten percent of all income away,—some might wonder if this is a helpful message for a congregation of people exploring faith for the first time, mostly made up of the poorly paid and students.
Just as we may struggle to buy Christmas gifts for a relative who seems to have everything they need, the gifts the magi brought, expensive as they were, seem insignificant gifts to give to a God who created all things and to offer before the greatest gift we have been given—Jesus. In his account, St. Matthew tells us they bowed down, worshipped Jesus and then opened their treasures.
One perspective on these gifts would be that the magi are offering to God the instruments they use in their divinations, and with them their jobs, their work and even their belief systems. What is important is not the value or use of what they offer (as in our traditional understanding of this tale), but what is meant by this giving. By this interpretation, what we offer God should not be limited to a tithe of what we have but perhaps the actions of the wise men act as a symbol, a reminder, to offer everything—our words, our worship, our singing, our dancing, our liturgy, our church buildings, every penny we spend, our lives, all we are—to God.
St. Bruno, an eleventh-century Italian Benedictine abbot (not to be confused with the patron saint of tobacconists!) saw gold, frankincense and myrrh as the offering of our wisdom, prayer and lives. He said, ‘Thus, we offer the Lord gold when we shine in his sight with the light of heavenly wisdom. We offer him frankincense when we send up pure prayer before him, and myrrh when, mortifying our flesh with its vices and passions and by self-control, we carry the cross behind Jesus.’
The great theme of Epiphany is how, for the first time, Jesus was revealed to the gentiles—non-Jews—and perhaps for each of us Epiphany can offer a different revelation. There needs to be no limit to how we offer ourselves to God—it’s not all about expensive gifts offered publicly to God.
For some people, yes, this might be offering money and riches to be used for service to others. For some it might be giving our time to a friend or family member who needs our care. For some it might be offering service to the community or to the stranger. For others it might be offering our intellect, our profession or artistic skills. Some might open their home and possessions for others to use. And for yet others it might be about offering prayer and meditation to God.
One of the joys of living in another culture is the different perspectives it can give one on everyday objects, occurrences and activities. He Qi’s artwork can help us all experience a new perspective on Christmas and Epiphany.
Living the Jesus Way
Since September we have been following a series of themes under the title ‘Living the Jesus Way’. This is the first time for a while that we have set a theme of such duration and, as a team, we have found that it has greatly helped to streamline planning sessions. The feedback has been very positive, largely I think because the issues raised affect us all at different levels throughout life.
Setting themes has also been important for the success of our new initiative ‘Young Minds’. This is the group of Year 6+ that now meets after 0930live! to discuss the week’s theme and prepare material for the next service. They have produced videos, spray-painted graffiti and discussed how and why we judge others. Simon has led the group so far, and has done an excellent job with his inimitable light-touch approach! Expect to hear more from Young Minds in the future…
In February, we at 0930live! will have been praising God for 10 years, and we think that’s worth celebrating! Not only do we want to thank God for his faithfulness through the years, and for the wonderful fellowship and friendships we have enjoyed, but also ask his blessing and hand to be on all our future plans. It is our prayer that he will encourage us to reach deeper into our community to take the message of his grace and love to those who have still to hear it.
Community and Schools Worker
Have you bought all your gifts for Christmas yet? Are your plans for the Christmas period complete? Events like
Christmas, a birthday, a new baby or wedding take weeks to organise. With TV ads encouraging you to spend and portraying a Christmas we perhaps dream of - where is the True meaning of Christmas in all of this?
Yes, Mary and Joseph had been busy preparing for the birth of a baby, when the Roman’s census changed their plans.
Whatever your plans are for Christmas this year, take some time to examine the Christmas story again, visit one of our events or services in Church and remember why all the fuss, why all the preparation. I shall be reminding the children in school, and the families connected to Church, what Christmas is all about: a time when a new chapter in God’s relationship with people on earth began with the birth of his son.
There is the Messy Christingle on 13th December at 5pm. Come and make your own Christingle, celebrate in our service and enjoy tea together. On 22nd December at 9.30am is the 0930 Live! Nativity; come as a family, children come dressed as a shepherd or angel or wise man.
A Christmas holiday club is on 23rd December for children of primary school age, from 10am to 3pm; and the Christmas Day service is at 9.30am. Bring one of your presents with you. In all your preparations add the true meaning of Christmas into the mix.
May you all have a peaceful Christmas and God’s blessing for 2014.
Young Families Worker
We have had an eventful few months since I wrote last. We have lost three of our church members – and we mourn their passing, and of those others in the past year that we miss so much, and wish we could still have with us. And yet in the midst of deep despair and grief and pain we see the church at her very best. We see prayers being offered for those in need, we see practical help being given – including meals – to ease the load, we see love in action.
Love in action is what we find through the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. God sent his one and only Son to be amongst us and to live life as we do. He sent His Son to show us what true love is, what real comfort looks like, and to give to us the example we should follow for the rest of our lives.
Love in action is what we should live for the whole of our lives – to those on the margins, to those we find it hard to get along with, to those we have had disagreements with. Love in action is about seeing the very best in someone and wanting the very best for them, despite the circumstances we may be faced with.
Love in action is what we see on the streets of most of our cities and large towns on weekend nights with Street Pastors – showing the love of God in practical ways like giving out bottles of water and flip flops, calling a taxi to ensure those worse for wear for drink can get home safely. Please pray for the Street Pastors around the UK and the work they do to show love in action every week.
Rt. Rev'd. George Carey said recently in the media that the Church of England may die out within a generation. This, he says, is due to the lack of attention given by Ministers in the Church to the younger generations who are not filling our churches as the older generations have done. I would extend what he says to include people in churches who have no desire for change because it doesn’t fit with what they are used to. Love in action would be to accept that change is necessary if we are to see a vibrant Circuit and Church in this next generation. Love in action would be to encourage us all to share what God has gifted us with for the benefit of the growth of His Kingdom.
So – will you think and pray about this with me? What does love in action mean in your life? What does love in action mean in our life as the Methodist Church in Frodsham?
I hope that we might come to the same conclusion – love in action means putting ourselves last and others and God first – that we might be a blessing to many and God might be glorified.
May we be able to show love in action to our friends and family, within the church and in the community this Christmas and New Year. May God’s blessing be upon us as we seek to embody the nature and character of the Christ Child this season of Christmas. May we be humble enough to put others first and to place the example of Jesus Christ in front of us each and every day in our life of faith.
I pray that God’s peace and blessing will rest upon each of you this Christmas – and upon your homes and families throughout the coming year. May we start a New Year with love in action for all those God places across our paths.
Christmas greetings and Happy New Year!
With love from Rev'd. Denise
Blog posts written by the Minister and Members of Frodsham Methodist Church.