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Finding Living Bread - Uygur Testimony

by Pastor Jim Murphy
November 4, 2001

As Hillcrest Chapel "does all things to win some, and to leave a legacy for the next generation," some who we hope to win live on the other side of the world. This includes the Uygur ("we-gur") people group of Northwest China and Central Asia, in which we have had a special interest since 1990. This sermon is written in the form of a first person narrative, and is a fictional account of how a Uygur man became a follower of Jesus Christ. For security purposes, the names in the sermon are false, but all the events and statements are true representations of what this man's experience could be like.

 

Asalaam Aleykum - peace be with you. My name is Alim Alptekin, and I am Uygur. This is my first time away from my hometown, my first time in a worship gathering like this, and my first time to speak to more than 20 people at one time. So please allow me to read you my story, lest I forget it in my nervousness.

My people, numbering some 10 million, live in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region of Northwest China. The design on my dopa lets you know that I live in the desert oasis city of Kashgar, also known as Kashi - which means "to have water." I mention the meaning of this name because that is what my story today is about: how I now have water, and water that is beyond that found in the river and springs that for centuries made our city a key center along the old Silk Road trade route. But I'll come back to that later.

I am married and have two married daughters; my wife's name is Shizada, my daughters are Gulzar and Balshan, and their husbands are Anwar and Rakhim. Shizada and I live in the residential compound surrounding the college where I teach English. It's a good job—one that I've had to work hard for. When I 
was younger I decided to do all I could to get an education. I didn't want to grow melons my whole life and scrimp by through peddling them at the bazaar. I still don't make much, though, and to help make ends meet Shizada bakes bread (nan) and sells it from a stand near our apartment. 

My family and friends are all proud to be Uygurs. We are proud of our land, which includes the Celestial Mountains, towering over the vast stretching sands of the Taklamakan Desert. Forbidding sands which mark us as a distincitive desert dwelling people, a resourceful people who are able to make the best of our situation. A people who still dance and sing, in spite of scorching summers and blistering sandstorms. A people who have made the desert bloom around our oases towns. You should see the vineyards of Turpan, 
the orchards and poplars of Hotan, and the cotton fields which grow along the Tarim River. I love our land.

And I love our food. I wish you could come to our house for dinner, so we could stuff you with noodles, dumplings, mutton and rice, tea and bread. Not to mention raisins, pears, apples, dates, almonds and melons. Just when you'd think you're too full for another bite, Shizada would bring out the next course, and the feast would continue. She's an amazing cook—and insists that you try everything. After a few hours you'd rise from your place on the floor with a grunt and a satisfied sigh, and waddle your way out the door. I wish you could come to my house for dinner.

I love our land and I love our food, but one thing I don't love about being Uygur is being oppressed by the Chinese. We live in China, but, please don't call me Chinese. The government has settled our cities with Han Chinese foreigners, who have little regard for our land and our traditions. They consider us second class, take all the best jobs, and require that our children speak only Chinese at school. Our people who live near Lop Nor suffer from radiation from the Chinese nuclear weapons testing range in their backyard. Last year the Chinese embarked on a so-called "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign in Kashi and other cities. This was suppossedly to protect us from criminal activity. Several young men were labeled as "Islamic 
Separatists", accused (with no evidence) of plotting against the government, and publically executed without trial. So much for Chinese "protection." I boiled with anger yesterday as I watched a Chinese soldier spit in the face of a Uygur man, when he got hit by the Uygur's bicycle. It was the soldier's fault, since he stepped out in front of the bike. But, who cares? He spit on him anyway. And you don't spit back at a Chinese soldier with a gun.

There's one other thing you need to know about our lives as Uygurs. More than anything else, to be a Uygur is to be a Muslim. You Americans may have a hard time understanding this, since you live in what could be called an individualistic and secularized society. But our society is not like that. We stand together as a people, not just as individuals. And, as a people, we are Muslims. Our society is built around the requirements of our religion. We wake each morning before dawn to the Mullah (the priest) calling us to prayer over the Public Address system. Together we repeat our creed, day after day and many times a day: "There is no god but God and Muhammed is the messenger of God." 

The God of the Muslim Uygurs is Allah, who is aloof from people, unknowable. But on the other hand he dictates all the details of daily life, through the Holy Books of the Koran and the Hadith. There is much instruction for living a perfect life, but, in my opinion, not much help from Allah to make that perfection possible.

You may be surprised at my cynicism about Islam, the religion of the Uygur people. I am also surprised, to tell you the truth. For who would have thought that I would ever utter a doubtful word about Islam, the faith of the Uygurs for over a thousand years. This brings me to the story that I really came here to tell. 

I just mentioned the Muslim Creed, "There is no god but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God." I'll never forget that day two years ago. I was attending the midday prayer time at the Idkah Mosque, as I did every day. As usual, I had removed my shoes, washed my feet, hands, and part of my face. I turned toward Mecca, bowed with my face to the ground, and recited the traditional creed. After saying it, though, I stopped short, realizing that I no longer believed it. As those around me repeated it again, I said a new creed, under my breath, lest I should be discovered. My new creed was, and is, " There is no god but God, and Isa is the messenger of God." (Isa is Jesus Christ). I was shocked to hear myself say that, and, in a few seconds' time, saw played out before my mind the profound implications of such a statement for my life as a Muslim.

But as the prayers around me continued, I couldn't stop whispering it over and over, "Isa is the messenger. Isa is the messenger. Isa is the messenger." As I said those words, something like a warm cloud enveloped me. I felt a strange sensation, but I didn't understand it. Afterwards, as I rode my bicycle back to school for my afternoon class, I began to call that sensation "love." As I repeated the name of Isa, Jesus, for the first time in my life I felt love from God, not judgment. I felt that God was no longer aloof, but near. I kept this to myself, afraid of what might happen if anyone knew I was thinking and feeling this way.

Over the next few days, I thought about all that had brought me to that point of confessing Jesus—Isa—as God's messenger. I could probably go back and tell you most of my life story, since I now see messages from God at different points along the way. But that would take too long, so I'll start back in 1994, when I met two people from America who moved into an apartment in our school compound. 

Their names are Craig and Sandra, and they moved into the next building down from ours. We first met them when they stopped by Shizada's bread stand, and then got acquainted over the following weeks and months. They bought bread every other day, with Sandra usually being the one doing the buying, and Shizada being the one doing the selling. After they had their first child, a little boy, our wives would talk a lot about how to raise children, with each being surprised by parenting practices of the other's culture.

Craig and I talked often when we came across each other at the college where I teach. He was enrolled in a Uygur language class, and found it helpful to talk to me about difficulties with our language, since I can easily discuss it with him in English. After a while we began to talk about other things as well. Being a new father, he was also interested in talking about my experience as a father.

The first time Craig mentioned anything about his religious beliefs was in one of those conversations. I assumed that he and Sandra were Christians, since they are Americans. And I also assumed that, like all Americans, they lived immoral and sinful lives, full of sex and violence. I didn't know much about what Christians believe, only that it had to be wrong if it led to this type of behavior. I also knew that, since their religion wasn't Islam, they needed to realize how they had been deceived, and become Muslims like the 
rest of us. 

But back to our conversation. When we were talking about parenting, Craig said something about God as his heavenly father, and how that is his main example of what a father should be like. Even though I talked like I thought Craig was crazy to believe that God loved and cared for him like a father, there was something about the idea that seemed right to me, and I thought about that conversation many times after that.

After we had known Craig and Sandra for nearly two years, Shizada and I asked them over for dinner. Earlier I mentioned all of our great food; well, we put out that kind of a spread that night —laugman noodles, mutton in rice, our best and freshest bread. Craig and I talked over the meal, in English since my English was better than his Uygur. 

Everything was going well until he brushed some bread crumbs off his lap and onto the floor. I looked at him with shock, and said, "Stop! Stop! What are doing?"

Bewildered by my response, he said, "What do you mean, What am I doing? I'm just eating, enjoying some of your wife's good bread. Is there a problem?"

"The problem," I said, "is that you're brushing the crumbs from my wife's good bread on the floor."

I then explained to Craig that, for Uygurs, bread is a symbol of life. A knife is rarely used to slice it, but it is broken by hand and offered as a sign of peace and friendship. Bread crumbs are never dropped on the floor or thrown away, out of respect for the essence of life.

After my explanation, Craig apologized for his act of disrespect. I told him it was no big deal, even though it was. We finished eating with much less talking than before, and parted company awkwardly.

A few days later I was at home when Craig and Sandra stopped at our stand to buy some of our bread. I stayed inside and pretended not to see them, hoping to avoid a conversation. But it was no use trying to hide. When Craig asked if I was home, Shizada said, "Sure, let me get him for you."

I was expecting Craig to bring up the bread incident, and he did. I thought he might somehow justify his crumb tossing, or imply that it shouldn't be such a big deal in our culture. But he didn't. Instead he told me that he can understand why we view bread as we do, and that he respects that. He asked me to feel free to tell him whenever he does something that is offensive to me, whether it's brushing bread crumbs onto the floor or anything else. I was surprised by his humility, since Americans have the reputation of being (how 
do you say it?), "know-it-alls." So I was more than happy to lay aside my hard feelings, and to soften my heart toward my friend. We asked him and Sandra to come inside for tea and bread.

As we sipped our tea, I began to talk again about what bread means to us, and asked what it meant to Americans. Sandra replied that it doesn't have the same depth of meaning in common American culture as it does in Uygur culture, but to share your bread with someone—or to eat any meal together—is still a basic expression of good will among people. Then Craig added that, for Christians, bread had special significance.

Quoting from the Injil, which are the four gospels that Islam includes as one of its holy books, Craig quoted the prophet Jesus as saying, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." It is because of this, he said, that bread has special meaning for Christians, since it is a reminder to them of Jesus, the bread from heaven.

I nodded thoughtfully as he talked about this. Although it's in the Injil for all Muslims to read, somehow I had never noticed this statement of Jesus.

Our tea time was short. Craig and Sandra bought their bread and left. Then Shizada and I went to visit our daughter Balshan and her husband Rakhim, newly married and now living with Rakhim's parents. As we walked out of our college compound toward their house near the bazaar, I found myself thinking about the talk we'd just had, and what Jesus said about being the bread of life: "He who comes to me will never go hungry."

In the following weeks and months, my mind went back to that conversation more than once. There was certainly enough bread around our house to remind me of it. "He who comes to me will never go hungry." I thought of my drinking buddies, of things they said that let me know they were hungry for something that their drink and games couldn't supply. 

I thought of the young radicals who gathered at my friend Erkin's shishkabob stand at the market, muttering about the Chinese, and whispering far-fetched conspiracies about overthrowing them. They were hungry for something which no government, not even a Uygur one, could ever supply. 

I thought of myself, a reasonably devout Muslim my whole life, trying to live by the five pillars of my religion:

  1. reciting the creed
  2. saying my set prayers
  3. giving to the poor
  4. fasting
  5. planning how to complete my pilgrimage to Mecca

A devout Muslim, but—I had to admit—still hungry for something else. 

I embarrassed myself thinking about all of this. Why can't I just accept the way things are, as Allah has willed it? Who am I to question anything? Am I not standing against Allah even by my questioning? My friends and family would think I was crazy if they knew I was thinking about all this. 

But I couldn't help it. Jesus' words had been planted in my heart as grapes in the oases of Turpan. It seems I couldn't keep them from growing.

I need to move on to tell you about some other important points along my journey, that led to me saying the name of Jesus two years ago in the mosque.

Perhaps you've heard of Ramadan, the annual Muslim month of fasting. During this time, more than one billion Muslims around the world abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn until sunset. (So thank God for the nighttime!) The name Ramadan refers to intense scorching heat, and some say this month is so named because it scorches out our sins with good deeds. 

After Ramadan comes the biggest Uygur holiday of the year, Korban, on which we remember the day that Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son. Muslims believe it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed. For generations, my family observed Korban through killing a lamb, to remember the sacrifice that God provided when he spared Abraham's son.

It must have been about four years ago that I invited Craig and Sandra to join our family for the killing of the lamb. Our ritual started with a trip to Kashi's Sunday Bazaar, one of the largest along the Silk Road. Since I'm not a farmer, I had to buy a lamb for the occassion. The Sunday before the big day found us crowding into the livestock area of the market. I told Sandra to watch her step. Sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and camels greeted us, with their eager owners trying to outshout each other for our attention. We picked our way through the crowd of people and animals until we came to the sheep section. A few hundred of them huddled together, tied to posts, their bones telling us of their scanty meals. My father had taught me how to pick a good one, one worthy of the occasion, and he had also schooled me in the art of bartering. A few minutes later we left as happy customers, our lamb in tow.

It would take too long to explain everything that went on with our Korban celebration, so I'll just come to the main point. As our lamb hung bleeding near our front door, I thought I saw tears in Craig's eyes. I thought, "What, he isn't crying over this slashed throat, this spilled blood, is he? Hasn't he ever seen an animal slaughtered?"

Then, as I watched him in the group of friends and family clustered around the lamb, I noticed his lips moving. Unaware that I was looking at him, he was muttering something in English. I couldn't make out the words, so I made my way around and stood behind him. Then I could hear him say, " Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" He repeated that phrase about two more times, and then fell silent as the lamb was taken down, and the cutting for our feast began.

There was too much commotion that day for me to ask Craig about what he said, so I asked him about it a few weeks later as we walked home from the college. He said that he was quoting from the Injil, our Holy Book of Gospels, from the Gospel of John. It is the same Gospel, he said, that also includes the reference we had talked about before, where Jesus said that he is the bread of life. He said that this Gospel also points to Jesus as the lamb of God, who died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He was the 
sacrifice provided by God, much like the sacrifice which God provided for Abraham.

Based upon my Muslim beliefs, I had a few problems with what Craig said, and I told him so. I said that it would have greatly shamed the name of God if he had allowed Jesus to die on the cross, so God put someone else in his place and just made it appear that Jesus had died.

It wasn't long before we were home and our conversation ended, but that was the first of many times that Craig and I talked about Korban, and its message to us about the sacrifice that God provided.

I mentioned that there are other important landmarks along my spiritual journey. Listen to this.

A few months after that Korban, I had a dream in which I saw a dark, shadowy figure, like some evil spirit (Jinn) approaching me and Shizada as we slept. As he came toward us, he said, "I have come for your souls tonight." In my dream I saw a flaming sword between me and the spirit, and a voice seemed to be coming from the sword saying, " I am Isa (Jesus). I have power to save you if you believe in me." I awoke from this nightmare in a cold sweat, and laid awake the rest of the night.

The next morning Shizada and I got on a bus to go to Turpan to visit my cousins. I couldn't get this dream out of my mind, as we bounced along the rutty roads across the desert. My thoughts were interrupted, though, by questions Shizada started asking me about rumors we had heard about Turpan. More than most any other place in our province, it was said to have a strong dark presence, what some called "The Dark Oppressor." This oppressor seems especially intent on terrorizing women. Stories are told of women waking to feelings of panic, and being unable to move. They describe a shadow-like shape of a man, a form who climbs on top of them and presses down until they can't breathe. The women don't suggest any sexual activity, but they believe that the shadow comes to oppress them by driving fear deeply into their hearts. These encounters are so real that several girls report sleeping with knives under their pillows to ward off the experience.

We rarely visit my cousins in Turpan, and now you can see why. Every time I bring it up, Shizado says that it just won't work out, for some reason or another. I know the Oppressor is the reason, and she just feels silly saying it.

There is much talk among Uygurs of experiences like this, causing many of us to live in fear. Of course, I talk big when it comes to spirits, and act like I'm not afraid of anything. But I know how afraid I was when I had that nightmare the night before.

After several hours on the hot bus, we arrived in Turpan, and took a donkey taxi to my cousins' house. All my relatives from the area were there, and there was more food than even Shizada normally makes for guests. Soon enough, thoughts of any Dark Oppressor were the furthest thing from our minds. We went to bed full and happy, looking forward to more visiting the next day.

It must have been around two in the morning that I was startled awake by a scream from Shizada. She was obviously terrified. She couldn't move, and she was having trouble breathing. I was afraid as well, and felt helpless to do anything for her. Suddenly my dream from the night before came back to me, and I could picture the flaming sword and remembered the voice saying, " I am Isa (Jesus). I have power to save you if you believe in me."

Before I even knew what was happening, I heard the words coming from my mouth, " Isa, save us!"

Then the presence lifted. Shizada was able to move again, and began to breathe normally, except for her sobbing. I trembled as I drew her near me and said, "Isa saved us."

Another 18 months passed, from that experience with the Dark Oppressor to the day at the mosque when I confessed the name of Isa. During that time Craig and I had more discussions about our beliefs, I carefully read the Gospels in my Injil, and I had more experiences of seeing the power of Jesus. Eighteen months, on top of at least three years of other steps along the way, may seem like a long time to you who have grown up around followers of Isa. But for me, whose very identity is tied to being a Muslim, this was not a long time.

Since that day when I first said that Isa is the messenger of God, I have come to believe so more and more firmly. He has become my bread of life; he has become my water. Isa, more than Kashi, has become my Oasis.

As I finish my story today, I'd like to ask you to pray for me, and for my wife, who also now follows Isa. Pray that we can continue to live in the freedom that we have found: freedom from hatred. I never realized how much I was enslaved by hatred toward the Chinese, until God miraculously began to free me of it.

And pray for us that we can continue to live without fear: fear of the spirits, spirits like the Dark Oppressor of Turpan. And without the same kind of cowering fear that we used to feel towards God, a fear that was like a thieving dog cowering away from a raging master. We still fear God, but in a better way. It's now a fear mixed with love, as we see God as a caring father... just like Craig said in one of our first talks.

Pray for us that we can overcome other fears, fears that are new to us now that we're Isa's people. We fear being kicked out of our families, as authorities pressure them to reject and humiliate us. We fear being excluded from the social life of our community, which is built around the practices and holidays of Islam. With only a handful of believers in our town, we have no other community to be a part of.

We fear the loss of our jobs, the decreasing of our pay. We fear the treatment that others have received, being threatened, interrogated, or beaten. And we know that many followers of Jesus throughout China have been killed because of their faith. We want to have courage, but we must admit that we have these fears. So please pray for us.

Pray that we may have the strength to rise above our doubts, troubles, and sufferings, and to grow in faith even under these difficult conditions. Pray that we might trust in God's goodness, even under circumstances where it is hard to see his lovingkindness.

And, finally, pray for us that we might help our friends and families—especially our daughters and their husbands—come to the point of making the same confession that we have, of joining us in our creed:

"There is no god but God, and Isa is his messenger."