Hong Kong is right now going through an incredibly difficult time in its history, as the city struggles to navigate its identity in relationship to mainland China.
I recently stood before our church and encouraged them with the reality that God is still in control and at work. In my opinion, there has never been a time in Hong Kong’s history where the soil is so fertile for the seeds of the gospel. There is a moment in Jeremiah where God speaks out over Israel in exile in Babylon and tells them that a new season was on them to build and to plant. And that building and planting was to take place while they were in Babylon, the very place they felt they should not be. It amazes me how so often God’s heart is to see his people flourish no matter what circumstances they encounter, and that it is often in the darkest of places where God reveals himself best. I challenged our church that the very reasons they were Christians in Hong Kong is for a time such as this.
The seeds of this struggle began in 2014 with the “Occupy Central” movement, a grassroots student-led civil disobedience gathering that arose off the back of changes to a previously expected commitment to universal suffrage for Hong Kong Chief Executive government elections. Fast forward to June 2019 and the issues resurfaced when the government tried to pass an “Extradition Bill” (which would have allowed the possibility of citizens in Hong Kong being extradited for trial in the mainland). Mass public protests ensued, the largest of which saw over 2 million Hong Kong people (out of 8 million) take to the streets in peaceful protest.
While the government eventually withdrew the bill, the stage was set for a momentum of protesting, asking for democracy for our city and the protection of certain human rights, including the right to freedom of speech and assembly.
All of this has now culminated in the central government in China passing into law a “National Security Law” for Hong Kong on July 1 2020, designed to criminalise any act of “secession, subversion, terrorism, collusion” in the city.
Without putting too fine a point to it – we are now living in a very new Hong Kong, and many people are deeply concerned about the future of our city.
One of the main communities where protests took place is where our church is based – Wan Chai. For many months we had to navigate walking with our community, caring for our people, cancelling services when it wasn’t safe for people to travel to Wan Chai, and generally try to pastor a very diverse congregation who took a lot of different political views of the situation. It was a complex and divisive time with a huge amount of uncertainty and disruption to many people’s lives.
In the midst of this situation arrived COVID-19. The Vine was closed for 15 weeks in total, but during that time it was amazing to see how churches did respond across the city, especially in the area of serving the most poor and vulnerable. There was a large scale mobilisation of the church to distribute face masks and hand sanitisers to street sleepers, low income families, and asylum seekers and refugees. In many cases this also included food distribution, especially to those elderly in our communities who were unable to leave their apartments due to high risk reasons. Close to a million masks were purchased and given away through various church networks in the city, and many church members were able to truly love their neighbours in ways that before were not considered as important or valuable.
However I think the greatest opportunities and challenges have come spiritually. It has been fascinating to see how various churches have either flourished or struggled during this time. Churches who were already teaching a theology that placed emphasis for spiritual formation beyond just the literal gathering on a Sunday were in a much better place to adapt to being closed and still thrive in terms of discipleship and community. Those churches who have a theological and spiritual emphasis on the Sunday gathering experience had a much harder time making the shift to being ‘online’.
At the Vine, we used the forced closure period as an opportunity to recapture the home as a spiritual space. We emphasised the opportunity our congregation members had to spiritually mature in this time – to take ownership themselves for their spiritual growth and not rely on “church” to help them grow. We reminded them of the importance of our personal spiritual disciplines and put tools in their hands to help with this. We challenged them that this time was a true gift – a chance to take personal charge of their spiritual lives and flourish for themselves.
I believe the church was always created to exist best in times of crises. The first church was birthed out of and into crises. And the house church movement in China has always flourished amongst some of the most intense persecution you could imagine. It is very easy for us to forget this in other cultures where crisis is not a constant reality but more a sudden inconvenience. But the church was always designed to be a community of love wrapping its arms around a community of pain.
The relentless pursuit of certainty is an elusive exercise that will always leave us unsatisfied.
We have been entrenched globally in a season of high uncertainty. This uncertainty has sprung up due to the global pandemic, but for us Christians it can be even further exasperated through the challenge it brings to our theology: Where is God in all this? How come the promises of scripture and my current circumstances don’t seem to add up? How do I reconcile what I believe about God’s goodness and his deliverance with the ongoing disruptions that are taking place?
As humans we find uncertainty deeply uncomfortable. It makes us feel out of control and overwhelmed. So much so, that when faced with a season of uncertainty or disruption or crises, we all do the same thing – we push for certainty. It is our human nature to seek for certainty, for a definitive answer to the things we don’t understand.
This is a great ironic truth: when we push ourselves constantly to find certainty in an ever-changing world we will only ever find ourselves more and more out of control. The relentless pursuit of certainty is an elusive exercise that will always leave us unsatisfied, and in so doing, merely add to the sense of confusion and insecurity that we are actually trying to avoid.
The pursuit of absolute certainty is not the call of the Christian life. We are called to something far more profound and mysterious – faith. And faith thrives best in uncertainty, in disruption, in crises.
Living in a different way begins as we remind ourselves that God never promised us a perfect, stress free, certain life. While it is important for us to have a degree of understanding about our circumstances and life, the pursuit of absolute certainty is not the call of the Christian life. We are called to something far more profound and mysterious – faith. And faith thrives best in uncertainty, in disruption, in crises. When we let go of certainty and embrace faith we are letting go of our need to be in control and be completely self-sufficient. We are putting ourselves firmly in the hands of God and trusting him.
In embracing faith, we remove ourselves from the centre of our world and put God once again in his right place. NT Wright sums this up well when he writes: “it is no part of the Christian vocation to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” As disciples in this time of disruption, maybe our most faithful response right now is to enter into the holy space of lament knowing that the bible gives us a picture of a God who laments alongside us. Could it be that to move faithfully right now is to model how the healing love of God is at work in our very real suffering, the reality of our doubt, and the tangible anxiety and fear we are grappling with? Could it be that in this season of death and resurrection we might become a true resurrection community, revealing the resurrected life right in the midst of the heartache, pain, and horror of what we are seeing?
In the bible, hope is a confident expectation, an assuredness about what is to happen in the future, and an anticipation of this because of a deep understanding and trust in the goodness of God. This is not wishful thinking but confident expectation based in the character of God. So how do we thrive in hope during times of crisis? We remind ourselves of the character of God and we treat his faithfulness to human history in the past as a deposit to his faithfulness to us right now. We believe what the bible says about him, and we build our hope on this. This is what has helped to sustain hope for me in the pain of the past year my city has experienced.
My hope is not in my ability to bring certainty and control, not in a change of my circumstances, not in my gifts and talents and wisdom. My hope is in the unchanging character of God and the trust in his activity of justice in the world this creates.