A letter from John McCall in Taiwan
Learning Together on the Road
Every week I find myself on many buses, subways, regular trains, and Taiwan’s high-speed rail. I am grateful for all these forms of transportation, which allow me to teach at three different seminaries around the island, to lead pastor spiritual formation groups, and to speak and preach throughout Taiwan.
I also spend a good deal of time in pastors' cars as they pick me up at train stations or on the back of students’ motor scooters as they take me after class back to the train station. I have found that this time together “on the way” is a wonderful time to talk about what is on the hearts of these pastors and seminary students.
When I get into pastors' cars, I often ask where they are finding joy in their life and ministry and where are their challenges. These simple questions lead to great conversations as they talk about the way God is currently using them. Their eyes light up and their words speed up as they tell me about the growth of church members or a new program to reach out to marginalized children in their communities. They also share their struggles, knowing that I will keep their struggles confidential. As they talk, I listen and sometimes ask more questions. They, too, ask questions and we think together how we can be the church in a new way in a rapidly changing society. As I listen I discover that few people ask them how they are doing. We often reach our destination without finishing our conversation.
This past semester I taught 60 students a course on “The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life” at Tainan Seminary in the south of Taiwan. The role of the Holy Spirit is an important topic in the Taiwanese Church and often a Taiwanese Christian’s questions about the Holy Spirit can be very different from an average American Presbyterian’s questions. Every Tuesday after class a different student would volunteer to take me to the train station on the back of a motor scooter. And I quickly discovered that they wanted to use the time on the road to talk about the Holy Spirit. Often at a red light they would turn, their helmet hitting mine, and ask some question that was burning within them about the way the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives, in the life of the church, or in the world. One student bought a platform ticket at the station so he could accompany me to the train to keep talking about his questions. Nothing thrills a teacher more than students who want to keep pondering what we talked about in class.
Jesus spent a lot of time on the road, but I as I read the Gospels, I see Jesus not seeing the road just as a way to get from here to there, but also as a wonderful place to engage with folks in their daily lives. The Taiwanese actually have a term for this: “opportunity education.” Jesus joins two dejected disciples returning home to a place called Emmaus after they ponder his crucifixion and don’t yet understand his resurrection. Jesus takes advantage of this opportunity on the road to share with the two disciples. For some reason they don’t recognize him, but when they invite the stranger home, he breaks the bread and their eyes are opened. He then disappears. And they say to each other, “Were not our hearts on fire when he opened the Word to us on the road?”
Most Saturday evenings I stay at different pastors’ homes. I often speak in churches on Saturday and then preach on Sunday. As we sit together drinking Taiwan tea, I hear stories of joy and hope and sometimes discouragement and struggle. In big city churches the pastor’s residence is often in a high-rise next to the sanctuary. In mountain churches we often sit outside around a fire. We always end our talks with prayer, asking God to encourage and lead and give new vision. Many of these pastors are former students, so I have seen them move from seminary to the parish, and it is a joy to see how they are growing.
After drinking Taiwan tea, a wonderful feeling lingers at the back of the tongue. The Taiwanese call this feeling “gan tian,” which means “dry and sweet.” As I leave these conversations on the road, I also have the same feeling, “dry and sweet,” which lingers in my memory and becomes part of my prayers.
May God meet you on the road as you go about your daily life. Thank you for your prayers and support, which allow me to accompany these Taiwanese pastors and seminary students on the roads of this beautiful land.
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 214
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