From the Attic to the Yangtze
Rev Yap Kim Hao
30 Jan 2005
I was asked to continue the sermon series on “Experiencing God”. I decided to title my sermon: “From the Attic to the Yangtze.” We have been worshipping God in the Attic for some months and certainly God is in the Attic as well as with us now that we are in the Yangtze. For the purpose of the sermon this morning I want to project certain images when we think of the Attic as well as the Yangtze River and relating them to our experience of God and the kind of church that we envision.
In our land-starved situation and we have 90% of our population living in HDB flats. Consequently we have fewer houses, very few with attics. What could have been attics have become another level of living space cramped and hot though it may be. The attic area under the low peaked roof is used normally as places for storage. Items that we used seasonally or waiting to throwaway later are kept in the attic. So they are places where we put away our Christmas and festival decorations, old school books, audio-visual equipment, photographs, old clothes and discarded furniture.
Attics are good hiding places. In real life we read about people hiding from danger and from being persecuted. When I was in college years ago a student from Singapore who failed in his examinations hid himself in the church attic in a college town in Michigan because he was afraid to face his father and he had nowhere to go. He survived for some time by coming down at night when no one was around to find whatever food he could in the church kitchen.
The attic was a safe haven for him from rejection by family and embarrassment of being a failure in society.
The more memorable figure who hid in the attic is Anne Frank who wrote her diary in the days of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis during World War II in 1942-44. Anne Frank hid in the secret attic in a warehouse in Amsterdam , kept a diary and she braved the Nazis and lent a searing voice to the fight for human dignity. She insisted on her right to live. She had to wear the yellow star to identify herself as Jewish as the homosexuals then had to wear a pink one. She wrote: “ I can feel the sufferings of millions; and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again … It is the cry of the Jew in the attic, but it is also the cry of the 20 th century mind, of the refugee forced to wander in deserts of someone else’s manufacture, of the invisible man who asserts his visibility… In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. ”
The attic was a safe haven for her from harassment and ostracism.
Do we survive in the attics of our lives and what do we store away there? When we met in the Attic we may have been tempted to hide from the world outside due to fear and shame of who we are. It is a comfort zone in a cold and cruel world and we cannot bear to face the change and uncertainties and take refuge in the safe haven . In matters of religious faith we hold on to old traditions and hang on ancient creeds and cling to past interpretations.
But that is not to be when we come to the Yangtze.
Yangtze of course is the name of the famous Yangtze River , Chang-jiang, which means “ Long River ”. It is 3,900 miles long and begins in the Tibetan Plateau and is fed by snow and ice melt from the surrounding mountains. Like all rivers it starts with a trickle of water at the very beginning and begins its journey as a small stream, receives fresh supplies of water from tributaries; and grows in size as it flows further from its source until it reaches the sea. It finally empties out into the South China Sea near the city of Shanghai .
My wife and I joined the Inter Religious Organisation delegation as guests of the Religious Affairs Department of China four years ago and sailed through the breath-taking Three Gorges which is soon disappearing to give way to a massive dam to provide electricity for China ‘s development. It was an exciting adventure to cruise on the Yangtze.
When you are the Yangtze you come out into the real wide open world of nature and people whose livelihood comes from the river. God is no longer confined to the attic but to the brave new exciting world where the river runs through it. It is throbbing with life and energy.
The Yangtze was there billions of years ago and will be there for many years to come. It may have been the result of ancient tsunamies which raised the mountains, formed the gorges, deepened the valleys and carved the rivers. It was there before we appeared on the scene and remain even though modern technology will strike a new course for its future. The river Yangtze too is from God.
Revelation 22 opens with “ Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city;
When we look at the mighty Yangtze as part of nature we realize that God as Creator of the heavens and the earth . Humankind is part of God’s creation. You and I are created by God. We are who we are because God has created and endowed us to live on this planet.
This is experiencing God as the Creator.
There is yet another major river in Sarawak in my life – the mighty Rejang River in Iban land. In days past the Ibans had to paddle their long boats up and down the river and still do for short distances as they drop in on their neighbouring longhouses. But nowadays most of them have outboard motors attached to their traditional long boats. Through years of survival they know their river and its tributaries and they have learnt to navigate them. In those long narrow boats the passengers sit in a single file from the front to the back. You can’t stand up and rock the boat and you just stay still for long stretches for hours with nature breaks in between when we go to the upper reaches of the Rejang. The guide/navigator is poised at the tip of the boat in front. He studies the treacherous currents and signals to the driver at the stern steering the boat forward. Through hand signals the boat is being navigated to avoid the rocks and the whirlpools of water which can suck and topple the boat. This is the art and thrill of shooting the rapids. The river goes through difficult terrain and twists and turns. We just have to trust the guide. We trust the guide in reading currents, tackling hazards and moving ahead in the right direction to our destination. We are not meant to do it alone on the river.
Psalm 46 sings of “God is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God , the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her she shall not be moved; God will help her right early.
As a modern poet says:
“This is a living universe;
its meaning runs through storms and stars,
whispers through life and death,
sings through earth and sky,
and shouts in living things and things
that do not seem alive.
It speaks this day as on all days,
but will you hear?”
As I have traveled for a longer time and greater distance the river of my life I can witness to the presence and guidance of God. It has been for me not an easy journey when in 1948 the only option for a fatherless boy of nineteen with financial constraints sailed in a freighter for three continuous weeks landed in San Pedro in California and took the train and dropped in the middle of America in a tiny farm town in the state of Kansas in a small Methodist college. My only chance of tertiary education because I was told I can work my way through college. I washed many dishes, clean many toilets and mopped many floors, mowed many lawns and painted many walls . Then I went to seminary in Boston and was away from home for a continuous period of six years without even phone contact. I could not have done it alone without good friends and more importantly God who guided me.
When we see the rushing Rejang river running through all the difficult situations we are aware of God who is our Guide when we allow God to do so.
This is experiencing God as Guide.
Then when we watch the river as an everflowing stream we feel the change. The river is always changing, the fluidity of life. Heraclitus is the well-known Greek philosopher in the 6 th century BCE before Socrates and Plato. His most famous saying is “ On those who step in the same river, different and different waters flow . . This curious riddle implies two things:
1) that the world is in constant change (different and different waters flow);
2) the world is one unified whole (the river) which is constant yet contains this perpetual change.
In more contemporary language Heraclitus said: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” The water is different each time. “You can never step into the same river twice,” means that life, like a river, is ever-changing and forever flowing downstream from its Source.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tze wrote that “Water never rests, neither by day nor by night.” It is always flowing. So it is with life. Water never stops. If it does, it becomes stagnant. The river of life is ever flowing, around us, and in us, and through us. Life goes no.
The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances its rhythmic measures … Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy ? All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back; they rush on.”
The water of the river rushes by us and it is never the same for we can only step on the same waters of the river momentarily. Another patch of water comes by continuously. You cannot step into the same stream twice. The waters of the river itself is constantly changing as it is being fed by the different streams and tributaries. John Muir, a theologian, writes: “… a river becomes rich by flowing on and through various climes and rocks, through many mountains and vales, constantly appropriating portions to itself, rising higher in the scale of rivers as it grows rich in the absorption of the soils and smaller streams .” Such is the nature of man and woman in the floating in the river of life.
Are we prepared for change? Change is always frightening. We love to stay in our safety zones of the tried and tested, of the old and familiar. We do not have the courage to venture into the new to launch out to the deep to cast our nets.
Here at FCC, we are a community that has known its share of raging rivers and whirling currents and together we face, and will continue to face, the changes and challenges that irresistibly run through us on this particular river . We are not meant to go it alone on the river in a lonely canoe. The church is, if nothing else, a place where we pledge to paddle together through the flats, the dark eddies, and the sudden whitewater. The truth is some of us are better at change than others, more comfortable with the unpredictable ways of the river. There are those amongst us who might even welcome change and look forward to it with relish. Many are still fearful and we have to hold their hands and encourage one another. After moving through dark eddies and swift currents, triumphs and reversals, entries and exits we should discover that we need not fear change.
Change is inevitable, Change is irresistible. The years pass relentlessly and we can be swept away by it as the flooding waters. There are times in which we want to resist this change all around about us. At those times we say, “I’m going to stay where I am. I am not going to move. I am standing firm.” But the rest of the world all around us like the river is.moving and changing. We find ourselves standing by ourselves and the world has passed by us and moved beyond us. Life changes. Life keeps on moving whether we want it to or not. . But we don’t enshrine the past and make it an idol and concretize the past and make it a fossil
There is an old Negro spiritual about the mighty Mississippi River
Ol’ Man River
That Ol’ Man River, He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’ He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along
There are always those who in the river of our religious faith are resistant to change and instinctively say: “Hold on! We are not going to change that . It is part of our glorious tradition. It is part of who we are. Why should we change ?” Others take the easy way: “What is going on in the world around about us is fine and we just go with the flow .” But those who have never been in a church will rarely come to a church which is stuck in the past has no connection at all with the outside world in which they struggle from day to day. Or they cannot stand the church which provides the same answers to the questions that people are not even asking today.
In the story in the Acts of the Apostles, the early church was faced with a massive influx of Gentiles who were not like the Jews. They were different. The Gentiles entered the church, they put their faith in Jesus Christ and that was it. They were so different. How were the Jews to react — those who based their lives on God’s word and holy scripture and the law of Moses, and had done so all their lives? What were they to do? Were they only to welcome these new followers of the Jesus movement and make them become like them? To what extent were they to become like them before they could become full members of the Jesus movement which later became the Church? Or would they be just second-class members until they embrace the law of Moses and were circumcised, and became like those who were in the church first?
How were the leaders of the Jesus movement to respond to this change? The Apostles in Council did not hold on to old tradition and was willing to accept the change and move forward. They didn’t hold their ground and say, “We won’t move. We hold on to our tradition.” In this case, they said, “We will move forward,” and you and I should thank God — because we too are Gentiles in the eyes of the Jewish community till today.: We were the outcasts coming in to the church and for your sake and mine, the early church changed so that we don’t have to follow kosher laws in our food, and a whole hosts of purity rituals which are there in the pages of the Old Testament scripture! No, we are set free from all of that because they decided to go ahead and change .
The life of the Church must keep on changing, reforming, renewing and revitalizing . And whenever the church stops changing, it will cease to be alive. A church which is not changing is a museum and museums are wonderful places to visit but they are not places of worship
Jesus is challenging us to look for God in the changing world in which we live. The one constant in the world is change, how do we grow spiritually in such a world? The present is fluid and dynamic and always in the process of change. The future is open and inviting. God’s relationship with us is a living relationship, not a stagnant relationship, and any living relationship is always changing always developing. Our relationship with God always has and always will be changing, hopefully deepening. God’s supreme revelation was not in a set of laws or not even in a book or a collection of books called the Bible but in a person, in the Word made flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. Our relationship is to the living Christ and not a historic creed or an abstract doctrine or even the human words of the Bible literally.
We must be open to the leading of the Spirit, to the idea that God is a living God and that new things are happening today and tomorrow and it is new every morning . The person who remembers and relishes and reverences the past can be learn from its successes and do not repeat its mistakes and is only then can we be open to the possibilities of new things in the future. It this ever changing moment the only constant is the need to change.
This is experiencing God who encourages change.
Finally when we regard the Yangtze river moving through all the different scenes we encounter God who embraces diversity. Yangtze is special because it has so many people living near it. About 350 million people live near the Yangtze River and its 700 tributaries. The lives of the people living near the Yangtze are affected in some way everyday by the river.
It is said that we lose something significant when we have little tolerance for others whose faith leads them in different directions. In a way intolerance and inclusivity are contradictions and incompatible. We must be tolerant with one another in order for the church to exist in diversity …Everyone does not agree on everything. We need to agree to differ. Everyone is not liberal or conservative. Everyone is not just justice oriented or prayer oriented. We are not all the same, but we have the same calling to love and care for another. We are not all in agreement about things…but we strive to remember that we are the church together.
Unity is not uniformity and we agree on everything. It is not unity in diversity, but rather unity in spite of diversity.
Diversity is the church’s strength, not something to be shunned. Certainly diversity can cause conflict, strain and disagreements. But in Christ, such diversity is meant to strengthen the body and keep it inclusive for all.
Our sense of community is based on love and service, understanding the things we hold in common and respecting those things that we differ. Not a common theology or political ideology, or being of the same race, economic status or sexual identity . We are all created by God and called to care for one another.
And in “ Run River Run” by Susan Hull
As tranquil streams that meet and merge,
And flow as one to meet the sea
Our kindred hearts and minds unite
To build a church that shall be free.
There is peculiar challenge that confronts us here in FCC. We will be reflecting and reconfiguring the shape of this Church. We take pride that we are the only inclusive church in Singapore . Inclusive essentially means that in this place where the people who worship here are gay affirming or gay friendly. The distinctive feature is that we make no distinction and affirm different sexual orientations. All the other churches, charismatic and non-charismatic, are generally regarded as homophobic. Homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture or with Church teaching is their claim. Are they wrong? Do we really believe our interpretation of Scripture and understanding of God with specific reference to sexuality is correct. The vast majority don’t think so. It is therefore necessary for us that in the way we do our theology and Biblical interpretation we have something unique to offer to the Christian community. From the different theological backgrounds from which we come we have to struggle together in order to arrive at the stage in which we can honestly say that Homosexuality is not a sin and that sexual orientation is a gift from God. This is what we have to offer to the churches. Who knows what will emerge as you face those changes, what fears alleviated and what hopes engendered?
Another important contribution that we can make is that FCC in its life and ministry, mission and service is that we must be seen to be different from existing churches here in Singapore . We are to demonstrate that we can hold together diverse forms of worship or liturgy and theological understanding and knowing and respecting our differences. We must be able to worship together in spite of our diversity. We must show that we care for one another.
Ms Maya Keyes the only daughter of right wing Republican leader Alan Keyes and disowned by him told a rally supporting gay young people in Maryland: “ We have to figure out what we can do to make sure that during those times when it seems like everything in the world is turning against them, like everyone in the world is rejecting them, that they know there are resources out there they can turn to; there are people out there who will say to them, ‘I care’. ”
Are you and FCC able to say “I care.”
That is to be the very nature of our inclusive community: that we will care for one another, for the rejected and marginalized in spite of our diversity.
This is experiencing the power of God as Creator,
the presence of God as Guide,
the hope of God who encourages change
and the love of God who embraces diversities.
Let us in closing bow before God humbly in prayer adapting the prayer of Saint Augustine :
Frail is our vessel, and the river is wide, but as in your mercy you have set our course, so steer the vessel of life toward the everlasting ocean of peace, and bring us at length to the quiet haven of our heart’s desire, where you, O God, are blessed, and live and reign for ever and ever.