Complicated Answers to Simple Questions: Why Jesus Is Still Overturning Our Religious Boxes
While visiting Shanghai on business last week I had dinner Friday evening with some colleagues from work. The mainland Chinese waiter who took our order did what I have experienced hundreds of times while traveling in China. Wanting to practice his English he asked the question that always gets the ball rolling, “Where do you come from”?
In that moment I have a decision to make. I can:
* give the simple answer he expects, “Wo shi Mei Guo ren” (I am American) and end this conversation fairly quick
* give the complicated answer, “Wo shi Xiang Gang ren” (I am from Hong Kong) and watch the smile on his face give way to a confused stare as 21st century globalization invades his tidy world.
With some time to kill before the dinner arrived I went with the latter to see how far down the rabbit hole this young man was willing to go.
“I’m from Hong Kong” I answered.
Yep, sure enough, he looked perplexed. Then he smiled like he figured I was just pulling his leg, “I don’t think so,” he laughed nervously.
I reached into wallet, pulled out my Hong Kong Identity Card, and handed it to him. There in both English and Chinese was proof that Hong Kong considered me one of it’s own. As he examined my ID card trying to figure out how a “foreigner” had one another friend from work arrived. Greeting him I said, “Kit, our waiter doesn’t seem to believe I’m from Hong Kong.”
Kit, who is ethnically Chinese, also decided to forgo the simple answer (Hong Kong) and instead chose to compound our waiter’s confusion by verifying I was indeed from Hong Kong and introducing himself to the young man as Canadian. (Which he is)
White guys from Hong Kong? Chinese guys from Canada?
The poor waiter! His world was just turned upside down.
Our Tidy Little Boxes
Our waiter that evening lived in a simple world with tidy ethnic boxes. Whether someone was white, black, yellow, or brown was determined by regional areas with restricted options. For this young man keeping people in these boxes helped him navigate the world in a way that made sense to him.
But we all like our tidy little boxes…don’t we? Especially when it comes to matters of faith.
Because of my pastoral background, and no doubt because of this blog, I am often asked questions regarding Christianity.
* Grace and Law
* Heaven and Hell
* Faith & Healing
You name it…
In those moments I have to often make the same decision I made with the waiter. Do I
* give the simple answer that fits within their preconceived religious “box”
* give a Jesus answer
The Jesus Answer
Jesus dealt with this issue ALL the time. Read the gospels and you will see Christ often giving questioners a “simple” answer they expect and THEN when they digest that, he drops the answer that flips their boxes over and spills everything along the ground. Take for example a wealthy young man:
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Follow the rules”: A simple answer which the wealthy young man could easily receive as it fits neatly in his box marked “Religion-Eternal Life- How to”. He should have stopped while he was ahead.
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus dropped the “complicated” answer on him. The answer that stretches him. The answer that forces him to exercise economic and relational muscles he didn’t want to exercise.
The answer that will mold him into a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven which will bring life to himself and those he comes in contact with.
Jesus caused many of his followers to leave him when he gave answers that flipped their world upside down. That’s why he would often say things like, “Those of you that can accept it should accept it” (Matt 19:12) because some answers they just couldn’t accept.
On hearing it, many of his (Jesus) disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this (answer) offend you?…From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
John 6:60-61, 66
Many disciples of Christ today are still offended by what God is doing. 2000 years later it seems Jesus is still overturning the tables, stalls, and the carefully stacked boxes of our religious temples.
Conclusion: What Golf Club to Use?
Since moving back to Hong Kong I don’t get to golf near enough anymore. I really miss it. But I find answering people’s questions on Christianity a lot like golfing. In golf I have to size up the ball’s position (fairway or rough) and distance from the green while keeping in mind surrounding hazards. I then select the club that will best get me closest to the pin but I often have to make a decision on whether to “play it safe” or “go for it”. Playing it safe means pulling out the 7 iron and keeping it straight down the middle…but not very far.
“Going for it” means pulling out the “Big Dog” club and hitting the ball farther and more spectacularly…albeit with a much bigger chance of going into a hazard.
When people pose theological questions to me I have to quickly size them up:
* What is their age?
* What is their faith history?
* What is the underlying motivation? (genuine or antagonistic)
* How tidy are their “boxes”?
* If they are a Christian, how long?
* What country or region do they come from?
Among others this allows me to determine the answer that will best bring Life to the person and to the encounter.
If the person is a bit older and been a Christian a long time I just may keep the ball down the middle of the fairway and away from any “trouble”.
If it is an inquisitive person without a lot of religious boxes I might just choose a club with a little longer distance in it.
Back again to the waiter I met in Shanghai, I could have answered either “American” or “Hong Kong” and both would have been an honest and correct answer. If I had answered “American” he would have smiled with knowing satisfaction. But I chose in that moment to pull the golf club marked “Hong Kong”, swing for the green, and give him an answer that would expand his world just a little bit farther.
2000 years later Jesus is still saying, “Those that can accept it, should accept it.”
It will overturn some tidy boxes but it’s an exciting ride.
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