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A Letter from John McCall, serving in Taiwan

Spring 2020

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Dear Friends,

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the concept of space recently. Living in Asia for over 20 years has transformed the way I look at space. Taiwan has almost the population of Australia living on an island the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Most of Taiwan’s landmass is made up of sparsely populated high mountains, so the bulk of the population lives in tightly packed cities along the west coast. When walking on a sidewalk in Taiwan, it is hard to practice social distancing. Even during this pandemic, with 1.5 meters distancing lines on the floor of the grocery store, there just isn’t room to find adequate space while waiting in line to pay. In spite of the close quarters, the government here has done an excellent job of containing the spread of the virus, and schools and businesses have remained open.

I was talking with a friend from Africa and a friend from the U.S. yesterday about how this period of quarantine is affecting introverts. My American friend said that his sister, an introvert, loves it because she lives alone and does not have to spend so much time interacting with others. My African friend said that homes in his country are small and introverts are suffering because they are required to stay at home with so many family members. Space shapes life.

While I live in the teeming city of Taipei, just 20 minutes up the mountain from my home on the campus of Taiwan Seminary is a beautiful national park, called Yang Ming Mountain. Often you can leave congested roads in the city and be hiking on trails where you rarely see anyone. This open space so close to the city is amazing. Many of Taiwan’s aboriginals, with whom I have enjoyed serving over many years, live in high mountains. One of our former seminary students from a high mountain village never quite adapted to the population density of Taipei. Occasionally, he just had to return to the mountains to breathe the air and walk on isolated mountain trails. His identity was shaped by the space surrounding his village.

When Taiwanese travel to other parts of the island for a weekend trip, they find security if there is a 7-11 convenience store near to the place where they are staying. These convenience stores are much different from the ones in the U.S. You can pay your parking tickets or electric bill and get a good cup of coffee or a bowl of noodles. This “city in the country” brings peace to city dwellers when they travel, for they know that they will find what they are accustomed to eat or drink. For the city dweller, too much open space can be frightening.

The first of four books which I wrote, which have been published here in Mandarin, is called Giving God Space. Now obviously, this title is somewhat misleading, for we do not first give God space. Space is always a gift from God. Space for beauty. Space for relationship. Space for growth. But in the dramatic changes we have seen and experienced around the world this year, space has been closed in lockdown. Parks, movie theaters, and churches have closed their spaces. Folks have been limited to the space in and around their homes. But space has also been opened up. Friends, who have not talked for years, suddenly find space and time to nurture relationship. The space in our backyards suddenly seems filled with the beauty of nature. For some, the quiet has led to space for God.

In art there is a term called negative space. In a painting often the space surrounding the main focus of the painting is empty. If all the space in a painting or a room is full, it is hard to appreciate the beauty.

So much of my work here over the years in Spiritual Formation with churches, seminary students, and pastors has been to allow God to open space for us to see with new eyes. One of my best friends here is an aboriginal school principal. The three schools he has served as principal, including his current school, have largely non-aboriginal students. They are students who come from the majority Han population. And my friend, Libunu, using his aboriginal vision as he enters a school, seeks to create space. Taiwanese work hard under great pressure. The students are focused on getting into a good university even in primary school. Libunu, as he arrives at a new school, looks at the buildings and the campus. He seeks to use local art related to the setting of that school. His first school was near the ocean and he commissioned an artist to create wooden flying fish on the walls of the school. But even more important than the art, is the way he gives the teachers and students space. He is a Christian and his faith shapes the way he creates a culture of acceptance at the school. When a student is sent to his office for punishment, he asks the misbehaving student two questions. First, “did you eat breakfast this morning?” Second, “what time did you go to bed last night?” Many of the students come from challenging backgrounds, and Libunu wants to create space where all are accepted and affirmed.

Space is where we meet God and where we meet one another. Space is where we come to know ourselves as God’s children. May God give you such space in these challenging days.

Warmest blessings,

John McCall

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