Wednesday, November 22, 2017

World religion day

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer." - Psalm 19:14

Walking slowly with the crowd, I exited the lobby and stepped out into the rain. It was Sunday morning, and I was leaving church. I felt refreshed, renewed, and calm. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from Taiwanese worship, but I always enjoy experiencing different churches when I'm abroad. This one called itself Lutheran, but it really had the makings of an American non-denominational mega-church. The service was held in a large room on the second floor of a skyscraper in downtown Taipei. There was a balcony for expanded seating and LED screens at the front to shown song lyrics and visual aids. The service format was also simplified, containing only music, announcements, prayers, and a sermon. Instead of a traditional organ, the songs were accompanied by drums, keyboard, and guitar. 

Most of the song lyrics were translated into English right on the screen, but when it came time for the sermon, there was no text for me to follow. (It's not ideal, but I've gone to church services in languages I don't speak before.) Just as the sermon was beginning, one of the ushers approached me and held out a small radio with an earpiece attached. I held the speaker up to my ear and heard a woman's voice speaking in English, translating what the pastor was saying with about a 2-second delay. It worked wonderfully, and I was grateful. 

Church for me is a place of solace, a place for emotional and spiritual rest. It is one of the few constant things in my highly transitive life. It is my center. I always love experiencing different Christian churches when I am abroad and being part of the global community of believers. 

The front gate of one of the temples
Later that afternoon, Stefanie and I had a tour of other major world religions when we visited three temples around Taipei: one Confucianist, one Taoist, and one Buddhist. I was looking forward to seeing the different styles of temples, but to be honest, each of them looked the same to me. I'm going to have to read up on eastern religions more when I get home, because I'm curious now if the coexistence of these religions in one island nation has caused them to be mixed together. I know for example in Brazil, there are hybridizations of religions as diverse as Catholicism and Voodoo, so maybe some hybridization of beliefs occurred in Asia too.

Close-up of one of the carved dragons -
they were very detailed!
Each temple was surrounded by an outer wall and a grand front gate. The gate was always of traditional Chinese construction, with wooden beams forming the roof and ornate carved dragons on top. After entering the gate, we found ourselves in a courtyard that surrounded an inner building. On the outer wall of the courtyard and in the inner building were a series of chambers, each with an altar and a statue inside. The statues were very often recessed, surrounded by golden frames and set behind plates of glass. The altars in front of them were covered in bouquets of flowers and plates of food (offerings, I assume). Visitors walked around the courtyard, stood in front of or entered the chambers they wished, bowed and prayed to the statues within. Prayers in each temple looked the same and involved long wooden sticks covered in something flammable. The sticks reminded me of sparklers we light on July 4th in the U.S., just three times longer and with wooden instead of metallic handles. The sticks were held in front of a person's face with both hands. After murmuring their prayers, the person would bow three times from the waist. They would then either move on to another chamber to offer another prayer or set the stick alight. Small open flames burned throughout the temples, and there were large cauldrons filled with what I think was sand. The prayer sticks would be lit from one of the flames and then stuck burning-end-up in the sand. The end effect was dozens of sticks sending smoke up into the air from the cauldrons.

As I said, the basic format of all three temples was the same. The only difference I could notice was the nature of the statues. The Confuscianist temple was not nearly as ornate as the others, and the few statues were all just simple shapes. The Taoist temple was the most complex, with statues representing either Chinese men with long bears or brightly-colored fictional creatures with exaggerated facial features. In the Buddhist temple, every statue was Buddha. 

Masked figures in the parade
Perhaps the most interesting part of our temple tour occurred at the Taoist temple. Stefanie and I stepped out of the metro station and headed down the street toward the house of prayer, but instead of silence and soltitude, we found a loud parade! I have to assume that the parade was connected to the temple, because the parade route was only a short stretch of street directly in front of the temple entrance, and each of the acts stopped at the temple, faced its front gate, and bowed or performed there before moving on. There were loud musical groups and a group of dancers with a fabric dragon. There were large costumed figures with wooden masks for faces. Actually, we had a bit more direct contact than we would have preferred with the parade. As we were exiting the Taoist temple, the parade was still going on, and a group of men carrying long silver trumpets turned and faced the front gate. All of a sudden, we were faced with a dozen ear-splitting trumpet blasts.

It was definitely a day of cultural experiences. I was glad to visit my own church and then observe the rituals of other religions in Taipei!

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