Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tai Shan’s Steps to Heaven’s Gate

After 6,293 steps (officially…more if you go through the temples), 11 gates, 14 archways, 22 temples, and with thousands of Chinese comrades, our climb finished 5,059 feet higher and 4 hours later than we started. At 4:30 a.m. we found ourselves at the summit of the "most revered of the five sacred mountains" in China (as is inscribed on one of the 819 stone tablets found on the mountain). Dana and I set out on this journey to experience one of the many traditions of ancient China, and this trek has been made for over 3,000 years. Traditions don’t die easy here, and from the turn out on this given Monday, this one will live another 3,000 years.

The people of China will gladly tell anyone Tai Shan is known for its sunrise and its bond to birth and renewal. This bond is why worshippers have been making their way to the top dating back to the earliest inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom. And as Chinese tradition would have it, paying homage to the heavens with sacrifices at its summit was a rite of passage for the new emperor. It is no surprise that the mountain’s name, Tai, "" means “peace.” It seems peace is the reward received for faithfully reaching “heaven’s gate.”

For those readers that have not traveled to China, don’t believe that China’s government, during any period, has restricted the people’s faith (religion maybe but not faith). Faith is strong here in the People’s Republic. There is evidence of trust in the government, a strong belief in family is obvious, an allegiance to the group is felt and a faith in the

teachings of Confucius, Buddha, Tao, and ancestors are lived out. As a country that lacks Christianity and God, it does not lack gods. As a country that lacks the Holy Spirit, it does not lack spirituality. As a country that lacks the Creator, it does not lack creators.

As I made the steps up the mountain in the darkness minding each step so as not to step into a Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian statue, the stories of Israel and Judah, of their turning from God and his pursuit of their worship, ran through my mind. In my mind I traveled back and forth between modern China and ancient, biblical times. As we passed by each new temple I connected more and more with the stories of the wrath of judgment poured out on His chosen people because their hearts loved gods of their own creation not the God of Creation.

The smell of incense was inescapable as these stories became more alive with each step. I was reminded of Jeremiah 1:16, “I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made.”

When we reached the top I looked for Jeremiah. I heard him but I couldn’t find him. I heard him saying, “They say to wood, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.” “…their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.” So many have made this pilgrimage to honor these “worthless idols” and to see the sunrise for with it brings the glory of Good Luck!

So, as I sat waiting for the sun to show itself my thoughts turned inward. Instead of hiding my idols inside, what would life be like if they were out on display? I immediately tried to stop that line of thinking, however it didn’t work. The thought of my idols and having them on display was embarrassing, condemning, and offensive. I was quickly relieved in knowing that, unlike the ones I passed on the way up and in the temples with incense burning all around, my idols

are hidden from public view. I am free to move around and ‘worship’ my idols at any time. I do not need to make pilgrimages to them, but at times I do. I do not need to make sacrifices for them, but I do so often. I do not need to hang flags, give gifts, or make gestures on their behalf, but I find myself doing so time and again. My idols are locked away from the public but not from God. And this truth stung like the mornings below-freezing air. I again heard Jeremiah reminding me that I am like Israel and Judah who “strayed so far…followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” And how I “exchange my Glory for worthless idols.” I was told that I could not look at the idolatry of this mountain (or country) as a foreign practice. I was told, while I sat there, that I must take ownership of it as a familiar practice and repent as was asked of my Christian forefathers.

Tai Shan had once again provided a worshipper a place to worship, to gain understanding, make connections, and offer praise. Though the journey began as a way to experience China it ended with me experiencing so much more than China…I experienced Holy Spirit accountability. As the sun came over the horizon with all its awe and splendor, it did bring a renewal of hope. A hope that brought the words, “because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion.’” This filled my mind like the sunlight filled the sky. It looks as if peace is the reward for those that make it up to heaven’s gate!

Mao Zedong has been quoted for saying, "To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.” I would like to give one of my own, “To die serving an idol is weightier than Mount Tai, but to die serving the Creator of stone and wood is lighter than a feather.”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Our Cooper River Bridge

While many Southeasterners were concerned with getting over the bridge last weekend, (Cooper River Bridge Run) Brad and I concerned ourselves with getting up a mountain. This wasn’t just any mountain, but the first of five sacred mountains in China, 3rd in height. Emperors who used to be carried by caravan EVERYwhere, would be carried to Mt. Tai, but then actually get down and make the ascent with their own two feet, so we’ve been told. They would walk up the mountain to extend gratitude and prove fortitude soon after the gods had made them supreme ruler over China.

This mountain is also not like any other mountain in that it has 7,000 (but who's counting) beautiful stone steps. They made me think back to when my dad built a rock patio in our backyard in Connecticut. How I loved that patio! I vaguely remember it being constructed, but I do remember that it wasn’t an easy task. Can you imagine lugging stones all the way up a mountain in order to make steps for an emperor? I guess if your people can build the Great Wall, nothing else seems too much for which to ask.

These steps were not easy and as the hours passed they seemed to increase in difficulty. That wasn’t all that increased! You should have seen all of the people! I know this is China, and granted we were warned that it would be crowded (Monday and Tuesday celebrated the annual “Grave Sweeping” holiday so people had a couple days off of work), but seriously – it was nuts. It was especially nuts about 1/2 of the way up when we reached a MASSIVE group of people getting off buses to make the final trek up themselves. RUDE! Brad and I had already stopped to rest twice and now these people were coming in with excited smiles and fresh legs? Please.

The mass of people who crammed onto these steps was unreal and something I never could have expected. I really felt like I was running the Cooper River Bridge. I got mad at people who were going too slowly, Brad told me once to “get over to the side” because going up the middle was too crowded, and then later we both moaned at a group of college-aged kids who had stopped and sat down right in the middle of the stairs. Seriously, right there in the middle?! Mind you, all this was happening in the dark of night. We didn’t start our hike until close to 12:30 A.M. Not only were those people sitting in the middle of the steps, but they also couldn’t be seen until you basically stepped on them.

Ha. This makes it seem like it was terrible. It was nothing of the sort. It was cold, but the perfect weather for climbing. It was difficult, but not unable to conquer. It was crowded, yet just like on the bridge, being surrounded by so many people was intoxicating. Everyone was in it together. You felt badly for those who seemed too tired to keep going, and you felt proud of those who looked as if they should be too tired, but were still persevering.

It took us right about 4 hours to get to the top. We were up there for about 2 hours. In that time the wind picked up, our fingers neared frost bite, and our toes went numb. Also in that time, the stars gave way to the sun’s rays, the sky began to blossom with light, and more and more people successfully summitted the mountain, gathering round for our communal reason for this exertion.

He was slow coming. He took so long I began to question if maybe he never really shows himself at sunrise, maybe he just sends up his rays and calls it a morning. After all, he’s too busy cooking up Jimmy Dean sausage for his family. I saw him on TV once. His daughter is such a cutie.

We all waited… and waited. I knew something had to be coming because the Chinese people were a l l still there, gathered around on the rocks with their cameras ready. This was not their first rodeo. They had to be waiting for something more than just a lit up sky. After what seemed like forever, I heard a gasp and cheer and then lots of chatter. I looked up and there was the tip of the beautiful red sun, in all of its glory, rising upward in a picture perfect, blue sky. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

My heart smiled as I thought it was just like God to make us wait on one of his miracles. He promised it, and it would come, but was I willing to wait, frozen fingers and all? I know I’ve made mistakes in my life when I have not waited long enough. I’ve rushed down the mountain too soon, just missing God’s miracle that he had planned to give me one minute later. Thank goodness, no thank God, this morning Brad and I decided to grin, bear it, and wait. Waiting is worth it.

And then we had to get down the mountain… with 10,000 of our closest Chinese friends.

o.h. m.y.