The house remains, but the next generation may hardly recognize it

Things collapse with regularity in the Pacific world. So much of the geography is volcanic, erupting in ash and fire and destroying the natural growth and building of generations. Below the surface, large sections of the earth collide and press on each other; the surface ruptures; everything shakes down into dust. Tsunamis may come and wash the rubble into the sea. Typhoons blow along the coasts and fires ignite in the coastal hills. Pacific world people in all their diversity, relate to each other in stories of earthquake, wind and fire.

A member of Sycamore United Church of Christ, my church, was telling me the other day about a Buddhist temple in Japan that is deliberately dismantled and rebuilt every 25 or 30 years so that each generation learns the traditional skills of building such a wooden building. Anything can happen in a generation, and with fire or tsunami, and there will always be someone who knows how to rebuild the temple.

When I think of theological education for the future in the Pacific world, especially at Pacific School of Religion, I think of it somewhat in this way. Each generation needs to pass on the skills of building the temple again. Only for us it is a house built of living stones. Living stones will not be the same from one generation to another. It is not a matter of replicating an ancient structure, carefully maintaining a traditional structure over time. It is a matter of rebuilding an age old house with living stones that change and grow. The house remains, but the next generation may hardly recognize it.

Earthquakes, wind, flood and fire, real or metaphorical regularly cause churches to collapse, not just in their outward buildings but also in their inward community ties. The other day I was reading a small book of lectures by K. H. Ting, a Chinese bishop.* In one of the lectures he described the state of the church about a month into the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966. All the churches were closed. It looked like Christianity would die out in China. But he became aware that groups of Christian people were getting together in each other’s houses, drinking tea, reading and talking about the Bible, praying together, and not just for a while until everyone got busy and quit getting together, but persistently. They did not do anything public or loud; they did not often sing hymns. But they quietly reconstituted the church with the same living stones as before, but in an entirely new form. Ting noted that the church has ostensibly died four times in the history of China, but each time after the collapse, it is built up again in a new form. By 1985, he reported, churches were being reopened or newly formed at the rate of one a day in China.

What if we offered courses in drinking tea or eating together or how to read and talk about the Bible around a living room table? My own traditional topic of teaching is history of Christianity. The ancestors are sitting around the table with us as living stones making up the house within which we meet. They encourage us. Things collapse with regularity in the Pacific world (they did in their time too), but every time, something new came into being and will again.


• H. K. Ting, Christian Witness in China Today: The Neesima Lectures (Kyoto: Doshisha University Press, 1985)
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