|This is an
Rev Steve Parelli,
August 19, 2009
Photo by Steve Parelli
My Korean, Beijing Friend
I want to tell you about a Korean man who grew up in the United States. He lived here with his
parents and siblings. His aunts and uncles and cousins were all close by. He is now in his
forties going to medical school in Beijing. Jose and I met this man and his life-partner this past
summer in Beijing.
His family is evangelical Christian. He is gay and has a same-sex Chinese partner living with
him in Beijing. He is closeted from his family. If they suspect, they aren’t saying so. Don’t ask,
There is something he longs for. He wants to have the knowledge that God is really in his life in
some “personal – meaningful” way.
He admires his family’s faith from the stand point that they speak of God as being in their lives.
But he doesn’t care much for their beliefs and practices. I know it sounds like a contradiction,
and it is for sure, but what he is expressing, I believe, is his own hunger for God, irrespective of
his family’s religious inconsistences.
He knows that if he “gets saved,” as his family insists he must in order to experience God, that
he will have to leave his same-sex partner and will have to deny his same-sex orientation. As I
said, he is in his forties, and the one thing he is sure of more than anything else is he is gay,
and will always be gay.
He wanted to talk religion with us and his need to know God. The four of us headed out
together for a day trip that turned into an overnight, two-day trip.
I began our discussion by putting theological definitions to the terms he had been hearing from
his family. “Yes,” he said, “that’s right, that’s what they tell me they mean when they say I have
to be saved.” So on and on went the discussion. We talked about the development of
evangelicalism from the Reformation through the 20th century in America. We talked about the
substitutionary atonement as a theory, not as a hard Biblical fact, something I told him I was
beginning to accept; we talked about the different formulas different religions use as the means
to salvation; we talked about “salvation” itself – is it personal, is it corporate, is it about the
afterlife or is it about our life on earth; I talked with him very openly and honestly about how my
views on salvation were changing for me. Our discussion was pressing towards one burning
question: can he have a relationship with God?
For my Korean Beijing friend, the whole conversation was totally stimulating and right where he
was in wanting to have a general, broad understanding of the Christian religion, especially
having been exposed to the Christian religion from just the one point of view his family was
presenting. Remember, he is a medical student who wants to be able to talk intelligently about
religion and faith.
Now, before I tell you the end of the story concerning my Korean Beijing friend, I want to
creatively address the question, How does Christmas come?
How does Christmas come?
Think about the question. How does Christmas come? The present tense of the question tells
us that we are assuming that Christmas is a living experience that happens repeatedly; that
Christmas comes now, today again and again, to you and to you, again and again. And that is
what we are saying. And this is what my Korean Beijing friend wanted to experience.
So then, how does Christmas come? Theologians have asked and answered this question for
centuries. Religion has written her creeds, disciplines, theological dogmas and formulas all in
hope of answering “How does Christmas come?”
To be clear, I’m not asking the question what is the Christmas message. I am setting that
question aside for the time being. Often, in Christendom, once we have concluded what the
message is, we create a formula, or theology that tells us how we are to receive the message.
This becomes a uniform expression of faith that each member of the given religious community
must ascribe to in order to say that believing faith has been experienced. I am also setting this
The First Christmas
In answering How does Christmas come, I would like us to speak with those Bible characters of
the first Christmas as a means of illustrating how Christmas comes.
I would start with Mary, of course. If I were to ask Mary, how does Christmas come, she would
perhaps answer us, “It is a mystery. I do not know. I asked the angel, ‘how will this be seeing I
know not a man’ and the angel told me ‘with God nothing is impossible.’ A mystery, that’s how
Christmas comes; and this too, it is a miracle.”
If we ask the wise men how does Christmas come, they would tell us, “It is a journey, a long
journey. Our search began by reading old books and sacred texts; we looked to the heavens
for a sign; and we followed the sign, a star – through many lands; and we asked “We seek him
who is born king of the Jews, do you know where we may find him?” A journey, that’s how
The Shepherds would give us just the opposite for a reply. How does Christmas come? For
them it was sudden, in a moment, angels all about, singing and giving praise to God in the
highest. A bright, bright glow shown all round about. It was beautiful. It was heavenly. There
was no question as to what they would do; immediately they went to the stable in Bethlehem and
then back out into the night rejoicing and publishing the great news that the Savior, the
deliverer, was born.
What about Kind Herod? With Herod we have the infamous slaughter of the Innocents in
Bethlehem. Personally, in my old age, I have found myself a bit more gentle with King Herod,
than in my youth . . . in fact, with all Kings. As I study and observe history, I’ve made this
conclusion: It is acceptable for Kings to protect their thrones by putting to death whomever
might appear to be a threat to his power. King Herod was no different than any other King.
Now, if we were to ask Herod How does Christmas come? And if we were to let him answer the
question from the point of view of the Englightenment, giving him the advantage of hindsight, he
might say something like this. Christmas comes where there is much social trouble and
upheavel. Christmas comes challenging the norms of the time. I was troubled and all Jerusalem
with me. What was I to do? Exercise my right as a King? I did, but by his birth came the
beginning of the demise of ruthless, oppressive, unjust reigns like my own.
What might Joseph say about How Christmas comes? We know very little about Joseph. Very
little is written about him. I would like to imagine Joseph saying something like ‘it takes a life time
for Christmas to come’ which is not so much a statement of despair, or lack of faith, as it is a
statement of living life in increments, steps, stages, or day by day. We might put these words in
the mouth of Jospeh because he is so silent. He represents to us the quit ones whose
Christmas comes by degrees; or perhaps the ones for whom faith is always in doubt but never
lost, always examined but never denied.
So how does Christmas come? For Mary, Christmas comes mysteriously, a miracle; for the wise
men, Christmas comes as a journey through many lands, following a sign, inquiring; for the
shepherds, Christmas is sudden, it is bright with singing; it is something to tell to everyone
immediately; it is a personal, firsthand experience; for Herod, he will need what only the
Enlightenment and time can bring so that he will be able to say, Christmas comes in its own
wake of overturning unjust social norms, in displacing oppressors like myself; for Joseph,
Christmas comes by degrees and is reaffirmed again and again day by day.
For all of this, we might say that Christmas comes in this manner: “The wind blows where it
chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it
goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:8, NRSV)
Our Korean Friend
And that brings us back to our Korean friend living in Beijing. He wanted to know that God could
be in his life, but he certainly wasn’t about to “become a Christian” by applying the formula
offered him by his evangelical family. As he said, “I’m not getting on that bus; I know where it will
take me and I’m not going there.”
I looked at him and said. Why don’t you just invite God into your life. You don’t have to
espouse any doctrine, nor apply any formula, nor say any sinner’s prayer. You don’t even have
to have a theory of the atonement. Why don’t you begin where you are and every morning offer
a simple prayer? As you head off for another day at medical school, why don’t you simply say,
‘God, you know I want you in my life. Today I’m inviting you into my life. Come in, talk to me,
show me what you want me to know for today.” Why don’t you do that every morning? I don’t
believe God will refuse you.
Then Jose, my life-partner and significant other, turned our attention to a verse that came to
mind which seemed to wrap it all up for our Korean friend once we applied it to him. Jose turned
to Heb. 6:11 in the Bible and read,
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is,
and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
“You believe that God is,” I told him. “Now simply believe that God will reward you” for diligently
seeking him. His face light up with joy. We bowed our heads and he prayed a simple prayer.
He was asking God to come into his life, day by day, moment by moment. He was asking God,
by faith, to do what he wanted God to do. He wanted God to be in his life. He asked God to do
that. When he lifted his head, he held his face to hold back the tears. He couldn’t stop saying
how happy he was.
We retired to our separate rooms that night there in that old, old town in the mountains
northwest of Beijing.
In his forties, after conversing the day away about God and knowing God, I witnessed firsthand
the coming of Christmas to this one soul. How does Christmas come? For my Korean friend in
Bejing there was a mystery about it, like Mary. I remember his complete joy; he was so full of joy
that I wondered at it and remarked about it to Jose saying I would I could be converted like him
some day. He was excited, too, like the Shepherds, with joy that was sudden and unexpected.
And being in his forties, having some star of some kind that his family was pointing to, the star
that says one can know God personally – he had now arrived at his Christmas, like the wise
men from afar, a journey that ended in peace and joy. But there was this, too: Like Joseph, his
Christmas in his heart would be a day-by-day experience, still looking at the meaning of
Christmas, still asking what it does and doesn’t mean. Finally, his Christmas came to him with
the unsettling realization that, by virtue of the fact that he is now gay and Christian, he is by
default a counter-culture activist. As the birth of Christ troubled Herod and all of Jerusalem, the
birth of Christ in him and others like him, is troubling all of Christendom.
|How does Christmas Come?
I Saw Christmas in Beijing this past August
A sermon delivered by Rev. Steve Parelli
at East Bronx Baptist Church, Bronx, NY
on December 19, 2010
|On August 29, 2010, Jose and I travelled
with a gay couple to this historic village,
Chaundixiia, 56 miles (90 km) NW of Beijing
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