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Altars

210px-hongkongspiritseat.jpgI love the smell of incense.  I often burn it in my studio when I want to remember Hong Kong, or when I pray.  I know that incense was used in the temple in the Bible, though I imagine it wasn’t sandalwood!  As a Protestant boy, I wasn’t raised on smells associated with God like my friends of Catholic and Orthodox tribes.  So for me, the smell of incense reminds me of Hong Kong, particularly Buddhist temples.

 While in Hong Kong this last trip, we visited Man Mo Temple which was not far from the hotel where we stayed.  There people burn giant incense coils that hang from the ceiling as a way to pray.  People burning incense in a Buddhist temple is a pretty common thing … and as exotic to my Western sensabilities as these activities are, what strikes me often is the little ways that people worship in Hong Kong.

Particularly, I am quite taken by the little, humble doorway altars which people set up to burn incense sticks in front of their storefront shops.  You see them everywhere you go, and if you aren’t a Midwestern American, you probably wouldn’t give these altars a second thought.  But they strike me as something beautiful, in their common, humble way.  They are something that Christians could learn from.

In my imagination, I am always trying to think up ways that Christianity could be expressed through a Chinese aesthetic … and I really don’t know how much of these kinds of things could be altered to be used in a Christian way.  Let me explain.

I would love to envision Christians making their own doorway altars, which they tend as thoughtfully as the Buddhists.  These altars could be red as well, the color of happiness, and be reminders of praying to God.  Those that have text could express a scripture, a name of God, or a short prayer.  Those with images could do similar things.  But to be small, beautiful, humble remiders of God are what I think each of us are.

My questions, however, are many.  Are these altar forms expressly thought of by Chinese people as being only associated with Buddhism?  Similarly, are incense sticks something that Chinese Christians would burn to pray, or are these things thought of as Buddhist as well?  If incense does have a strong association with Buddhism for Chinese Christians, would incense that looks or smells differently be thought of differently?  Would candles or flowers be more acceptable?

These are the kinds of conversations I would love to have with Chinese Christians … and hopefully some day I will.  I think an exhibit of Chinese/Christian altars that explored these ideas would be something fascinating to view.  Maybe I will do that some time.