Friday, 22 September 2017

Find the Horse, Keep the Fish, and Forget the Net

A Reflection on Diversity and the Church

Rev. Dr Ji Zhang 张骥 Assembly Theologian in residence

This week a friend asked me about my name. “What does Ji mean?” “It is about a horse, a perfect horse”. “I see, this is why Perfect Horse is your name on Facebook?” Then I went on to tell him about my family. I was born in the Year of Horse in 1966. The Chinese character for Ji 骥 consists of four characters: “horse 马”, “north 北”, “field 田”, and “unity 共”. Those last three together are a literary way of saying to hope for something. My mother imagined a perfect horse would come from the north, ride over fields, and unite our family. In the end she was right: now we are in Australia and she is with us too.

The perfect horse is actually an ancient allusion in Chinese literature and the conversation with my friend reminded us of a story from the Pre-Qin period of Chinese history (before 221BC) recorded in the classic Daoist text the Book of Liezi 列子.

The story goes that Bo Le 伯乐 was the greatest judge of horses over a long period of time. One day he was summoned by Duke Mu 穆, because someone told the Duke that Bo Le was the best but he was also growing old. A successor should be appointed to continue his work. Bo Le humbly said that none of his children were competent to judge horses, but he knew an ordinary labourer whose abilities were no less than his own. The Duke took the recommendation and hired Gao Jiufang.

Three months later Gao announced that he had found a “world-class horse” 天下之马 literally “a horse of all-under-heaven”. He sent word he was going to send it to the Duke, and told him the horse was a yellow mare. But when it arrived it was a black stallion instead. The Duke was in a rage, and rebuked Bo Le that Gao knew nothing about horses.

But Bo Le rejoiced. He said that Gao had now evidently exceeded even his own ability. A real judge sees only the inner nature of the horse, and does not let outer appearance distract his assessment. “Forgetting what is coarse, he obtains the essence”.

There are two morals in this story. The first one is about seeing the inner essence. A good horse requires a good judge to discover its inner capacity. Whether it is yellow or black, male or female does not matter. A good judge can forget what is coarse, obtain the essence, and bring it before the public for others to recognise its true potential – and let it run.

The Bible also has a similar saying: “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7).

In multicultural Australia, we need people of good judgement to discover our own “world-class horses” people hidden in the crowd, or more often, forgotten in the wilderness of the first generation migration experience. We need perceptive leaders who see beyond the external distractions to the inner essence of a person and nurture these people to their full potential. One in four people in Australia were born overseas. Many have come to Australia with exceptional qualities and skills, however, for whatever reason their skills aren’t valued or recognised and they are unable to retrain to make greater contributions to Australian society.

The second moral is that we need leaders who mentor like Bo Le today. We need good judges who not only see the inner nature of things, but also find the people who are best able to do the job we ask of them. Bo Le is exceptional because he disqualifies his own sons and goes to find a labourer to be his successor. This is not easy in a culture bound to family lineage. Bo Le is prepared to humble himself to recommend someone from outside his tradition, welcome him to the imperial court, and praise the newcomer as a true master - despite the misgivings of the leader. Bo Le does not only see the inner essence of his successor, he also prepares a way for him to continue in his role.

I was very fortunate to have someone identify and mentor me when I was a theological student. I took three subjects in my first semester, and managed to pass only one. But that professor said to me, “if you could pass one, you would pass more”. He was my first Bo Le. I had someone to nurture me to push open the door to the wonderful world of theology, and to encourage me that “you should go on and study more”. My second Bo Le sent me to Boston and visited me there. My application to become a Uniting Church minister was not successful in the first round of selection, because “I was too intellectual”. Yet another Bo Le came and overturned that decision.

The phrase in the Book of Liezi about someone “seeing what he grasps and forgetting what he does not see” reminded me of another Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi who said that truth/knowledge is like catching a fish. He said, “once the fish has been caught, the net will be forgotten – deyu wangquan 得鱼忘筌”.

This weekend South Sudanese Christians will gather for a national conference at Hoppers Crossing Uniting Church in Melbourne. Many of them are refugees. They represent the people with extraordinary faith and have taken unthinkable journey to come to Australia. Now they call the Uniting Church home.

We are blessed to have people from all around the world come to Australia, and many people from partner churches to join the UCA. Mission brings about a fundamental change of perspective and changes us too. The first generation of Christian mission was undertaken by migrants, moving away from their homes to new places. Today, God has brought the people of God back to us. The mission of God is calling a new multicultural church into existence.

Moving towards a multicultural church requires more than tolerance and liberal theology. It calls people to “drop the net”. In this case, the net is the “way we have always done things”. When it comes to Australian churches it seems to me that some want to keep the net and forget the fish. The net may be what puts fish on the table daily. But the first calling of Jesus to fishermen was to “follow me” (Mark 1:11, Matthew 4:19). God is calling us to let go our net. Indeed, let go of our traditional methods, even the boundaries that keep our family and friends as the insider. We need to let go to follow Jesus with other disciples on the way.

The task of theology, for me, is how to express a doctrine of diversity – to help us all not to see black or yellow, male or female, but to see the Spirit of life weaving through the vivid diversity of God’s perfect creation. It is to enable the church to capture God’s mission – to keep the fish and forget the net.