The China stories Western Christians have embraced through the centuries have often focused on what China is not. What China lacks, whether politically, economically, culturally, or spiritually, becomes the entry point for understanding China. These stories elicit a response from Christians outside China, who have the means to meet the need that is presented. The relevance of these stories lies not so much with China itself, but in the ability of believers overseas to bring something of value to China.
As an early 20th century appeal for orphans in China stated, “Old and Young Can Help China.” Quoting letters from donors, the appeal noted “the gratification of the writers over the opportunity to engage in a work that is so full of spiritual promise.”1
A century later, many Christians from around the world have similarly expressed thanksgiving for the privilege of participating in God’s still unfolding work in China. The gratitude comes from acknowledging that both the opportunity itself, as well as the means for addressing it, are blessings from God. This thanksgiving glimmers with the hope that our engagement will help to complete the story, our own involvement bringing meaning to the unfinished narrative about what China is becoming.
But what happens when we ourselves are the ones in need, with neither the opportunities nor the means to enter into the story in the way we thought we were supposed to?
At many Thanksgiving tables this year (like last year and the year before) there will be those who find themselves back in their country of origin, but their hearts are still in China. While they undoubtedly have much to be grateful for, many are also grieving a loss of purpose, questioning God’s direction, struggling to process what seems an abrupt ending to a significant chapter in their lives. Seeking closure, they fill the gaps in the unfinished narrative with thanksgiving for the privilege they had to share in God’s work during an extraordinary period in China’s history.
Peering warily into an uncertain future, it may be hard to imagine what the next chapter holds. Like Mary Magdalene, who peered into an empty tomb on a lonely Sunday morning, they are not sure what they’re looking at, much less what it means.
Arriving with an offering of spices to honor her departed savior, Mary Magdalene also came looking for closure. Her mind swimming with recollections of the life-changing moments they had shared together, she came looking for what was familiar, for what she could hold on to, a way to remember the way he had been alive and present to her.
Sorrow met confusion when, instead of a tightly sealed grave, she found herself staring into a dimly lit cavern where angels shared the news, “He is not here.”
Closure was not to be found, but rather a disturbing open-endedness. The ongoing story beckoned her forward into the darkness. But she dared not go in. The Lord was not where she expected him to be. So she continued to grieve, unaware that in the emptiness of the tomb was found the fulness of hope.
Perhaps, like Mary, we find it difficult to be thankful in the darkness. As Mary and her friends came to the tomb, the symbol of death and destruction and failure, the loss of all they’d hoped in, so Jesus invites us back to the place of disappointment and dead ends, only to discover that these are not the end.
The Lord called her name, and she found herself face-to-face with the one to whom she had come to bid a final goodbye. At once she knew she was seen, she was recognized, she was loved. Filled with a mixture of fear and great joy, she could not help but share what she had seen and heard.
Rushing to tell this good news, Mary’s frenzied explanation of what had taken place seemed like nonsense to those who had not been to the tomb. But she had seen the Lord. She had heard his voice. Things would never be the same. The tomb where she had sought solace had taken on new meaning. What had been a symbol of despair was now cause for thanksgiving. It was time to look forward, even when Christ’s words did not seem to fully make sense in the moment.
The reality of Easter makes possible the hope of Thanksgiving. In an era of uncertainty, we give thanks for the empty tomb that beckons us forward into ways yet unknown, to be amazed, to discover his presence, and to hear his voice.
Image credit: Andres F. Uran @andresuran via UnSplash.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.