This post also appears at Jacob’s Brook.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1:8-12)
I was invited by friends to speak at a training event in Liaocheng, China. It is a small city about 50 miles west of Jinan in Shangdong Province. I don’t speak much Chinese, but with a trusty paperback dictionary and more confidence than wisdom, I nonetheless took the foray into a place where English speakers are rare. I was originally meant to take the train, but I was delayed. The alternative, if I was going to make the event, was to fly to Jinan from Beijing and then find local transportation. Simple enough, yes?
When in China I spend most of my time in Beijing. English speakers abound. If you find yourself off the beaten path, you simply ask around and someone usually can speak English. But when I arrived at Jinan airport and asked about how to get to Laiocheng I was met with either blank stares or rapid-fire answers in the Jinan dialect (giving alternative ways to get there, none of which I understood). I was finally able to piece together a plan; travel into downtown Jinan to the bus station and find a bus to Lioacheng. At the bus station not only were there no English speakers, but every sign was written in characters (and no pinyin – phonetic Chinese). I cannot read characters.
I went to what looked like an information desk (it might have been a baggage counter or even a tea stand, but it looked like my best bet). I had the full attention of the person at the counter while I tried to find words in my dictionary. Then a crowd got off of an arriving bus. In America, lines are formed single file. Not so in China. People began to crowd around me and bark questions at the counter girl who was my only hope. I gave up trying to get her attention back. I went outside and picked a bus with the best information I had. Remarkably, it took me straight to Liaocheng. I got there at the same time as the train I had missed earlier. My hosts were there waiting for me to get off the train. “How was the ride?” they asked. “Perfect,” I responded.
I love China. It is always worth the crowds and travel challenges to go there. Some years ago I became friends with a group of Chinese pastors. Though we come from completely different cultures and have worldviews that were not shaped by common experiences, we have one thing in common; we follow Jesus Christ. That makes us family. And because of that, our differences pale in comparison to our similarities. We are unified in Christ.My Chinese friends teach me things about the love of God that I would not know from my experiences in America. And vice versa. The family resemblance shows – to each other and to those who see us together. When I am with them I do not feel that I am at a bus station with strangers trying everything within my wits to get someplace. I am home.
So we encourage one another in the same spirit that Paul wanted to encourage and be encouraged by the Romans in the first century. I get to celebrate the undeniable movement of the Spirit in China through my friends’ commitments to shepherd their people. I get to pray for God’s provision, increase and care. My friends and I have crossed cultural bridges to be together and are a strength to one another. That is the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17).