The Temple of Heaven is one of my favourite places in China. It was the place where the emperor went several times a year to offer sacrifices and receive wisdom from the spiritual realm, in order to rule wisely. The temple, with its three-tiered, round, blue roof representing heaven, is surrounded by a square courtyard with green walls representing the earth. It is a space where heaven and earth meet.
The wonder of this union is reflected today in the four characters that are seen on the front wall of almost every Chinese church: Yi Ma Nei Li (Emmanuel, God with us)!
As this presence is revealed in Jesus, Calvin E. Shenk writes in A Relevant Theology of Presence, “It comes in the form of a person being present among us, sharing human life and the vulnerability of human existence.” This is also the way that Jesus sends out his disciples: not as a conquering king, but as one who is present.
Unless we, as a church, are willing to put ourselves in a position of weakness by entering into the world of others—to come as a stranger—we always keep control and power. We won’t learn what God has in store for us. When we accept hospitality and kindness, and humble ourselves to listen to, live with and walk with others, we see God through their eyes, hear what God is saying to them and share in the gifts God has given them.
Some years ago, I worked alongside Chinese Christians in a community-service project. A local government official asked me, “Why can’t you Christians just stay home? Why are you always going out?” Good question!
I think part of the answer lies in the character of God.
“As revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14), ‘I am who I am’ does not merely mean ‘I exist,’ ” writes Shenk. “It means being involved, being present for and with the other. . . . [T]he cardinal point of the gospel is divine presence to which people are exposed in a personal encounter.”
As we worship God who is present, as we follow Jesus who crossed boundaries to be present, we also have this desire within us to be present: “A ministry of presence fails to observe the barriers and walls of division found in our world,” writes Shenk. “From the perspective of the gospel, Christ has broken down the wall. If all are part of humankind, breaking down walls should be a natural Christian vocation.”
At Gathering 2019 in Abbotsford, B.C., someone asked me why I would take on the role of interim director of the International Witness program. I quipped, “It gives me life.”
Only later did I realize that my knee-jerk comment was probably more on target than I first imagined. It is the “ministry of reconciliation” that is entrusted to us by God as part of God’s reconciling work.
Jeanette Hanson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is interim director of International Witness for Mennonite Church Canada.
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