Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Happy birthday Chen Mingyen

Chen Mingyen has turned 80.  His age is calculated according to traditional Chinese reckoning, which automatically makes you a year old when you’re born.  For those of you who’ve read the book Still Red, you’ll know he’s one of the three main characters. 

Recently I had the privilege of attending his birthday banquet in celebration of this milestone.  As I sat there listening to different people talk about the influence Pastor Chen has had on their lives and the help he’s given them over the years, it made me think about my own time with him.  Compared with those who spoke that night, it’s been brief.  Brief but ever so rich. 

I had met Pastor Chen some years before writing Still Red.  But it wasn’t until the days of interviewing for the book that I really got to spend quality time with him or speak with him beyond polite chitchat. 

Those interviews made a strong impression on me.  I can still see him moving the Chinese tea cups and saucers around the table and plunking them down as he was describing to me the layout of his labor camp.  I remember how he pointed to the bowl of congee before us with the top of his chopsticks and said distinctly that the porridge in the prison was not “thick like this”.  Pastor Chen was ever the patient teacher, explaining things to his student in these conversations.

But perhaps one of my most striking memories of him from all the interviews was that he was so keen for me to know of and understand his ministry to the minority peoples in China.  That’s what he was working on now, he seemed to be emphasizing.  My sense was that he wanted people to know he was no longer in the labor camp.  His job was no longer cleaning out the cesspools.  Yet invariably over the years he was (and still is) asked to give his testimony of that time whenever he was overseas.  But he had moved on to do other things since then. 

One day, after the book was published, we ran into each other on the street.  He seemed so sincerely glad of the opportunity and expressed to me his gratitude that I had written his story.  He purposely took up my hand to shake it as he spoke to me.  I had the feeling he was particularly pleased that I had also written about his current ministry. 

Pastor Chen was incarcerated for his faith for 18 years in China.  But he was fully exonerated and has been released now for 34 years.  His life and ministry have been full since.  He has not “rested on his laurels” after the victory of surviving the Chinese gulag.  Nor has he spent the time bitterly regretting that the prime of his life was gone.  He simply picked up from where he was before and began serving the poor again.  He was and still is a man who just wants to be faithful to his God.

Life goes on.  I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I’m still learning from him.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that because we’ve come through a major battle or crisis in our lives, that’s it.  The end.  We’ll live happily ever after.  But life isn’t a Hollywood movie or a fairytale.  It goes on.  And so must we. 

No matter what happens, keep walking like Pastor Chen.  Keep fighting the good fight of faith.

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