Lightning in My Living Room

This is a metaphor. Isn’t everything?

I was suspicious, right off the hop. My bride is a brightly inviting sort, so it’s not unusual for us to have a houseful. She mentioned that a young woman in our neighbourhood, someone whose good English has made her a go-to person when we can’t figure out how to pick up a parcel or find a decent loaf of bread, wanted to come over and visit. Hmm. Interesting, but we’ve never been exactly chummy before, and she didn’t say why she wanted to come.

“So Cindy wants to come over and won’t say why.”

“Yeah, and she wants to bring a friend, too.”

“Did you ask her? And she won’t tell you? And this doesn’t strike you as weird?”

I instantly smelled vacuum cleaner demonstration, but that’s a memory trace from a long-gone episode of injured pride and free-flowing anger. Chinese apartments are seldom carpeted. Gotta be selling something, though. I was sure of it. I got my back up a little, bluntly reserving my right to disappear into the bedroom at the first sign of a product demonstration. My wife inquired again, and the mystery remained, except that Cindy (an English name, and not her real one) would now have two friends with her. The secrecy irritated me, as did my bride’s apparent lack of curiosity. I even thought, What is this? A swinger’s club?

China, I’ve come to believe, has absolutely everything, so sure, there must be some strange sex going on beneath the modest surface of life. (And it wasn’t wishful thinking, get that straight! More awkwardness-avoidance anxiety than curiosity, I think I’m pretty sure of that.)

The evening arrived, and so did Cindy and three friends, two other young women and the mother of one of them. The usual pleasantries, the huan ying (welcome) and the exchange of names and the pouring of tea, ensued. There were no bulky salesman’s satchels, no obvious signs of commercial intent, but then so little is obvious to us here, even after three years. “Stacey” was the vivacious one, also with fine English, and she took the lead, socially and linguistically. She eventually got around to noting some of our living room art, mainly of the home-made sort, and maybe this was what Cindy had noticed on her earlier visit to our place. Stacey mentioned one lovely bit of Chinese calligraphy that a friend had done for us, a translation of a Baha’i invocation that begins, “God grant that the light of unity may envelop the whole earth…” I listened to the tenor of her questions, watched her shining face, and the tumblers began to click on my unlocking brain.

“Ah, I get it! The Christians are here!” For some reason, that possibility hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt relieved to understand what was going on. This was familiar ground, though I still couldn’t fathom the occult nature of the appointment. Inviting Woman leapt into practical negotiations, and the visitors, after a hasty bit of translation, agreed to also hear something of the Baha’i Faith’s perspectives on matters of spirit and civilization.

I was surprised at how willing they seemed to hear other views. Evangelical Christians aren’t famous for this. (My wife and son might say the same for me!) The 19th-century origins and main principles of Baha’i thought were shared, and Stacey translated, mainly for the mother and daughter team, who seemed to have no English. I was struck by what I’ve come to see as the essential narrative of Chinese Christians: that China was dark and deprived of spiritual guidance in the past, but Christ’s love dispersed these ancient shadows. My study of the wisdom of Kongzi and Laozi – the great figures, pre-dating Christianity by half a millennium, that we in the West have called Confucius and Lao-Tse – has been haphazard but still illuminating, and I felt compelled to remind them of this heritage. I knew what the answer would be, though: But they weren’t God. The other striking moment, one that should have tipped me off but didn’t, was Stacey’s comment about how the life and teachings of Baha’u’llah were “so long ago!” Imagine a thoughtful citizen of (possibly) the world’s oldest civilization marvelling at the dim distance of the later 1800s.

Anyway, the statute of limitations on hearing our views finally expired, and the Bibles came out. (When I was a kid in Baptist Sunday school, we did “sword drills”; the Good Book was our weapon of love and conviction, and we practised racing to see who could be first to flip to Isaiah! or Matthew! or 2nd Corinthians!, and then to chapters of the books, and eventually to particular verses, especially John 3:16, of course. For God so loved the world…) It was fairly fun to watch the mother and daughter flip the parchment, communicating to Tracey the refutation of ideas that were outside the purview of ancient Palestine, but I soon began to get a bit crusty. I’ve been down this road a few times before, including with family members, and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that religious disputation is worse than useless, past a point that I recognize pretty clearly. I figured we had hit it.

Then came an electrically charged turn I hadn’t seen coming. Before I could gently derail a fruitless conversation, another book came out. It had a plain cover, not recognizably Biblical. God had spoken again, more recently than the New Testament record. Did we know?

“Oh, I get it! The Mormons are here!” That met only puzzled looks. I’d obviously dialled a wrong number, and of course the Mormons would’ve been a well-scrubbed pair of young American men. I was on shifting sand and was grabbing at the nearest mental handholds for support. My conceptual map of the spiritual world we had wandered into was woefully incomplete. My theological doors were about to be blown off. (Any metaphor in a storm! my mother might have said.) We were about to be struck by lightning. Eastern Lightning. I was dazed, just like the time my eldest T-boned some idiot driver who’d come out of nowhere, and the passenger-side airbag blew up in my face.

Nope, this smiling, friendly crew were no Mormons. They belonged to something called the Church of Almighty God. That would be about every congregation, I thought but didn’t say. There are lots of other names for this group, but the most used English handle is “Eastern Lightning”. It comes from the Gospels, Matthew 24:27:  For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. (It’s a prophetic passage about Christ’s return that, funnily enough, some Baha’is also point to in their forays into scriptural detective work.) A living woman from northeastern China has claimed not only a latter-day revelation, but writes of herself as the very incarnation of the Creator. (God 3.0, I might say if I was sarcastic. First Jehovah (Old Testament), then Jesus-as-God-incarnate (New Testament), and now her. I later had a chance to find a 2001 Time magazine article engagingly titled, Jesus is Back, and She’s Chinese.) She is called only “Almighty God” by the faithful. Tracey smiled glowingly when she said this, nodding slightly at my bemused and fruitless quest for a family name or a mingzi. Her words are apparently remarkable, and the promise to the chosen ones sublime. Yes, it’s another millennial group, another cult of privileged salvation that will survive the apocalyptic carnage to come because they have listened to the voice of heaven-on-earth. Tim LaHaye, you ain’t got nothin’ on the Chinese! The time is at hand. They seem, unsurprisingly, to take a jaundiced view of the Chinese government. (Yes, there is a great red dragon mentioned in the Book of Revelation.)

A quick Internet look mainly turned up the alarmed condemnations of other more mainstream groups of Chinese Christians, though it seems the government ranks them second only to the Falun Gong on their Dangerous Cult list. I don’t know how much or how many of their diatribes are valid, but it was enough to turn my attitude from gobsmacked wonder and bemused interest (sprinkled with foot-tapping impatience) to one of concern. I no longer wondered at the veil of secrecy that had surrounded our appointment.   

“Listen, Tracey, Cindy, you need to be careful. I’m sure the government wouldn’t be too happy with this, but also, well, make sure you’re really thinking, really looking at what this group asks you to do, and think, and say.” I was thinking Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and other horrific adventures in cultish righteousness and the faith-based bunker mentality. I was playing Uncle Jay to sparkly young women who were, with the possible exception of Cindy, deeply pleased to be members of such an exclusive and promising club.

Shortly after, the four women left, and my wife and I stared at each other. Not for the first time in this country, we said, What just happened here? And why would they come to us? I was saying it again: Everything is here. China is big. We don’t have a friggin’ clue. But hey, it wasn’t just another typical night at home! We’re learning like blazes! And nobody tried to sell us a Kirby!



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