The first thing I noticed as I entered the auditorium was the pile of Ken Ham books. Titles like The Lie: Evolution screamed at me from the table while I tried to take in the scene. I needed to introduce myself to the speaker for that evening’s lecture, a biblical scholar presenting “Creation and Evolution: Navigating a Modern Dilemma.” I needed to help with sound checks and dinner box distribution to guests. Yet all I wanted to do in that moment was scream back at those books.
Here I was, a new pastor in a new church and a new city. I had only been on staff for a few months at this Shanghai mega-church for foreigners. Since denominations are illegal in China, this catch-all congregation included progressive evangelical Methodists like my husband Brian and me, fiery Pentecostals, cerebral Reformed folks, and everything in between. Later that year, Brian and I would warmly joke with the same biblical scholar how the only creed anyone at the church would hypothetically agree on would be “Jesus is Awesome!”
Yet I was in no joking mood that early spring evening before the lecture. As I rubbed my temples to ease a budding headache, I prayed to God for peace.
God seemingly answered that prayer. The speaker that evening presented three different positions that faithful Christians have taken toward the hot-button topic of creation and evolution. His tone remained respectful throughout the lecture, and I respected the rigor and honesty of his research.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” the lecturer started to conclude. “It’s been an honor to—“
“If anyone wants to learn more, I left some books on the table in the back!” a blond woman started screaming. She stood up from the middle of the audience and pushed her way past other participants.
The fair-haired interloper soon joined me beside the Ken Ham pile. “Hi Pastor Melanie, my name is Carolyn!” she chirped as she presented me with a well-manicured hand in introduction. I hesitantly grasped her outstretched palm, trying to hide my horror behind a feigned smile.
Several months passed before Carolyn’s name popped up again, this time in my inbox. “I want to host a Beginnings course!!!,” the email’s subject line exclaimed. I huffed in indignation. I could just imagine Carolyn typing that email on the latest version of iPad, her immaculately lacquered fingernails clacking away in excitement.
In addition to organizing the dinner lectures, my pastoral responsibilities included leading a course for new Christians called Beginnings. We emphasized hospitality by hosting the nine course sessions in the homes of church members. I had been praying for hosts for our next Beginnings cohort, seeking not only homes for the sessions, but also home-cooked meals for the 12 participants in each group. God, in God’s infinite humor, brought me Carolyn.
I gasped the first time I stepped through the doorway to Carolyn’s home. The living room alone of her four-bedroom penthouse was bigger than the entirety of my first apartment. “Nice view, isn’t it?” she grinned as I absorbed the stunning Shanghai skyline outside the floor to ceiling windows. After I took off my shoes and put on some plush house slippers, I accepted her offer to make me a homemade cappuccino in her posh Italian coffeemaker.
The apartment, like most in Shanghai, came furnished, which meant the furniture was simply a higher-quality version of what I’d already seen in other homes in the city. Carolyn had nonetheless added her personal touch to the living room with framed pictures of her well-dressed family, scented candles, and Nebraska cornhusker figurines. I followed her into the kitchen, passing a quilted United States flag hanging prominently on one wall, so she could make our fancy cappuccinos.
“Which mug would you like?” she asked as she pointed me toward an impressive coffee cup collection. I sifted through fashionable Starbucks mugs from Kuala Lampur, Taipei, Beijing, Hanoi, and Honolulu. Carolyn also had mugs from Manila, Phnom Penh, and Sydney. “We’ve bought a mug from every place we’ve visited since we moved here,” she offered, correctly interpreting the question behind my raised eyebrow. I wistfully chose the mug from Phuket as she proceeded to brew me a delicious, frothy Italian beverage in my Thailand cup.
I learned that afternoon that Carolyn was a trailing spouse. Her husband, a high level executive of a conservative-leaning multinational corporation, had been stationed in Shanghai for two years. Carolyn had packed up their Midwest U.S. home, said goodbye to their adult children, and joined her husband in Asia. She had lots of time and money on her hands, and was seeking ways to use both productively.
As a modestly paid, overworked pastor, I had trouble relating. All I knew was that Carolyn had what I lacked, and God was inviting me to choose how to respond to her generosity: would I be jealous, judgmental, or jocund? After a couple hours sharing introductory stories and praying together, we shook hands as I departed for my own two-bedroom abode.
If God got one laugh the day I received Carolyn’s first email, then God got a dozen chuckles the night of our first Beginnings session. The curriculum focused on God’s promises to humanity throughout the Bible. I had made a meticulous lesson plan for our first session, I had sent the participants all the initial information they’d need, and I had thoroughly trained my ministry leaders.
Only as we sat down to Carolyn’s tasty lasagna dinner, participants and leaders alike all on best behavior as we became acquainted with each other, did God’s humor over the situation hit home. I, a progressive pastor who reads the creation story primarily through a poetic lens, was about to teach these new Christians about God’s first promises to humanity in Genesis with a co-leader who promulgates Ken Ham books. I almost cackled at the absurdity of it.
I excused myself from the table, ostensibly to use the restroom. “God, I ask that you please protect our conversation tonight,” I desperately whispered as I walked towards the toilet. “Please only bring to mind the topics you would want us to talk about. I pray against confusion, division, and distraction. I pray instead that you would be glorified in our conversation about your promises to us in Genesis.” After giving God my susurrant supplications, I took a few deep breaths, and returned to the table.
Once we finished eating, we transitioned to Carolyn’s luxurious living room sofas. I sat down, gathered my notes, and began the lesson.
“Tonight, we’ll be exploring God’s first promises to us in the Bible,” I explained.
“Faithful Christians have different understandings about how God created the world.” I paused, wincing as I expected Carolyn to interject. I looked around the room, hoping not to see Carolyn inhaling before launching into a heated jeremiad.
Thankfully, the only response was attentive silence.
I continued, “We’ll instead focus tonight on the questions of why and what: Why did God create the world, and what can we learn about God’s character through this story in Genesis?”
With those words, which everyone received with peaceful anticipation instead of harsh bickering, I began to believe God’s promises anew. I was about to teach these young Christians that unlike other ancient Middle Eastern cultures, whose creation stories highlighted how humans were playthings for slave master Gods, our God created the universe out of love. Our God called all of creation good, and humans “very good,” unique creatures made in God’s image.
I would explain how God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, that the woman’s offspring would “strike the head” of the evil serpent who had just initiated the fall of creation, was a foreshadowing of Christ conquering sin and death. I was about to offer Good News to these new Christians. Perhaps the promises I was about to teach, nine key promises from Genesis to Revelation, still had something fresh to teach me, too.
I came to depend on Carolyn’s warmth and hospitality, which she expressed through delicious meals. One week she made us a scrumptious, creamy chicken casserole. “What is this dish?” I asked her as I gratefully stuffed juicy morsels of mushroom into my mouth.
“I call it Sunday Chicken!” she replied. “For years, I’d make this dish for my family after church on Sundays. It’s very easy to make, I promise!” It may have been simple to cook back home in the U.S., but Carolyn’s Sunday chicken was a precious treasure here in Shanghai. Cooking a casserole like that requires a large oven, which was rare to find in Chinese apartments. I also knew Sunday Chicken in China wasn’t cheap: one of the main ingredients was cream of mushroom soup, which could only be found, with a hefty price tag, in the imported food store.
Carolyn also showed her love through giving personal attention to each group participant. As these new Christians came to trust us, their prayer requests changed. The first week, they asked for generic prayers: for people they vaguely knew, or for overall work productivity. By the fifth week, their prayer requests became more personal. One female participant shared how an ex-boyfriend had hurt her deeply. She wanted to get married one day, but her family had not modeled healthy marriages for her. She felt confused, and afraid.
As I started to cobble together a reply for this participant, my fair-haired co-leader once again interjected. This time, however, I knew Carolyn well enough to trust her impulse to speak here.
“Let me tell you some of my own story,” Carolyn warmly responded. With those words, Carolyn shared insight she had gained from her many years of marriage. Carolyn was the main teacher that evening, not only answering the participant’s prayer request for courage and wisdom, but also teaching me new ways the Holy Spirit works. Sometimes God interrupts us when we least expect it.
For our last Beginnings session in Carolyn’s home, on a cool December evening, I taught on the future promise of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead. We explored the significance of resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15.
Yet that evening, what I most remember was using my pre-resurrection body to give Carolyn a present. With palms that had previously wanted to avoid Carolyn’s grasp, I handed Carolyn a physical sign of my genuine gratitude toward her.
Carolyn kindly received the gift. She untied the silver bow, then pulled back the trendy wrapping paper, which was stamped with Shanghai’s iconic pearl tower. Though I don’t typically notice how well a present is wrapped, Carolyn’s smile confirmed her appreciation of such touches of beauty.
When Carolyn opened the present, she laughed when she saw the delicate blue paper cutting of a man and woman dancing, a memento I had bought in the bookstore of a local Chinese church. Underneath the frolicking couple, written in Chinese and English, was a verse I knew Carolyn and I could heartily agree on:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).
As Genesis 1:27 declares, God created all of humankind in his image. Even Carolyn. And even me.