Pastoral Reflection for January 12, 2022 by Pastor Jenna Bergeson
When I think of “New Years,” you know what I think about? I think of fireworks, big meals and flowers; I think of lions and dragons, dancing, and the color red - everywhere. Five years in Malaysia and Hong Kong forever imprinted in my memory the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinese New Year celebrations (which is Feb 1-15, this year). For most East Asians, Chinese New Year is like the equivalent of “Christmas” for Westerners; it’s a time for family, special meals, time off - and yes, a sizable dose of consumerism and commercialism too.
As I first started learning about some of the main tenets of Chinese New Year, I remember feeling confused about how my Christian brothers and sisters could celebrate it with such jubilation. Some of the resounding themes around the festival include messages of wealth, prosperity and good fortune. And one of the main traditions around the festival is handing out red envelopes (“ang pao” in Malaysian; “dòu lì shì” in Cantonese) that contain money for family, friends and employees.
But when I hear the words “prosperity” and “Christianity” together, my mind immediately jumps to the “prosperity Gospel,” a theology that suggests that God rewards or blesses the faithful with financial and material wealth. And, Lord, I hardly know where to start with all the problems I find in that. I wholeheartedly disagree with a transactional, reward-based understanding of God and how God relates to us, God’s beloved children.
So where is Jesus in a celebration like Chinese New Year? Aren’t we discouraged from loving money (Matthew 6:24) or storing up “earthly treasures” (Matthew 6:19)? How can Christians lift up a festival that promotes such a counter message to the Gospel?
One of the greatest gifts of spending time in a context that seems, at first, “unfamiliar,” is the ways it can help us better understand ourselves and our own context; to see things from a different perspective. What I learned from my Christian (and Lutheran) brothers and sisters in Malaysia and Hong Kong through celebrating Chinese New Year is that “wealth” and “prosperity” don’t necessarily translate to money or tangible goods. And when we take time to assess what we have - and what we have to give - we can better appreciate what really gives our life meaning and what makes us truly “rich.”
I still have some issues with celebrations around Chinese New Year - but if I’m honest: I feel the same way about Christmas! Both holidays have fallen victim to commercialization in ways that will probably never be undone. However, I appreciate the ways that Chinese New Year (like Christmas, in many ways) reminds us to slow down, make time for each other, give thanks and spread joy and abundance.
Jesus’ message to the world WAS, in fact, about prosperity; however, he challenged how we see and understand it in our everyday lives. When the world suggests we don’t have enough, God gives us the lenses to see the riches we already have. When the world tells us to keep everything for ourselves, God shows us how deep love comes out of sacrifice for others. And when we are generous, the apostle Paul reminds us we actually become rich (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).
Lutherans tend to talk a lot about “grace”; my theory is that we talk about it so much, because we constantly need reminding of it. Grace is the package (the “red envelope,” you might say) through which we receive God’s abundance. When God provides for us and blesses us, it isn’t because we’ve done anything to deserve or earn it but simply because God loves us. And we are called to extend that grace to one another and to ourselves so that we may experience prosperity in God’s abundant blessings.
I give thanks to God, because I know every good thing is a gift from God. And, brothers and sister, I gave thanks for you, because you make my life rich.
May you know the true meaning of wealth and prosperity in the grace of God’s abundance. Let us share that abundance with joy, dancing and dragons! Happy Chinese New Year!
“The One who provides seed for the planter and bread for food will also supply and enlarge your store of seed and increase your harvest of justice. You will be made rich in every way for your generosity, for which we give thanks to God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 9:10-11
Pastor Jenna Bergeson