A Toss of the Blocks
“Will Miss Kuo have a boyfriend before next semester?”
This seems like a silly question to ask a god. And yet, as the two red crescent-shaped blocks clattered across the floor they stopped with one round side and one flat side both facing up—a very obvious “Yes!” Everyone erupted in laughter and shouts of “Oh!”, as another student wanted to try his hand at throwing moon blocks.
Of all the sounds one may hear in a Taiwanese temple, the clack of wooden moon blocks across a stone floor is certainly the most common. The Taiwanese call it bwa bwei. Patrons in a temple will bring a gift for the god, then light incense sticks and bow three times to get the god’s attention. If they have a very pressing question or request, they then throw moon blocks to receive the god’s answer.
Moon blocks are an ancient religious practice originating in China, so old that there are arguments about when the practice started. They are crescent-shaped (explaining why English speakers call them “moon blocks”) and painted the auspicious color red. One side is flat, the other round, and when thrown in pairs there are three common landing combinations. Two round sides means “no.” One round and one flat means “yes.” Two flat sides are called the “laughing answer,” either because the gods find the question ridiculous and refuse to answer, or they are laughing because the answer is just too obvious.
My classmate looked over at me and asked, “Do you want a turn?” I glanced around at the others attending this semester’s language center cultural trip. Some were Muslim, some Buddhist, a few Hindu, most had no religious affiliation, yet all were having a good time asking ridiculous questions and throwing moon blocks to see what answer they might get. (And if it’s any consolation, Miss Kuo still doesn’t have a boyfriend.)
However, throwing moon blocks isn’t like flipping a coin or consulting a magic eight-ball. Even if more and more young Taiwanese don’t believe in the traditional religions and just go along with these practices to please their parents or preserve their culture, moon blocks still have spiritual significance. They are a connection to an unseen world, a pathway for the gods to speak with humans, to affirm that prayers have been heard, and to give an answer. Throwing moon blocks isn’t a parlor game or even just a cultural experience; it is an expression of prayer, an appeal to a higher power, a request for help. And let’s be honest, everyone would like to have a tangible sign that their prayer has been heard and an answer is on the way.
There are many gods in Taiwan, each with their own area of expertise, so there are different avenues for help if one god seems unwilling or unable. If I throw moon blocks and one god answers “no,” there’s a chance a different god may say “yes.” Yet I always wonder, if help is received, just who is the “helper”? As a Christian and a missionary, my affirmation of prayer coincides with the Psalmist’s: “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2, ESV). There is only one God who created all that is. He is powerful enough to help, able and willing to hear me, and if I lift my prayers to him, he promises to answer. So my response to my classmate was, “No. I can’t. There’s only one God whom I ask for help, and I don’t have to do anything to know that he hears me.”
Why Not Give Jesus a Try?
After our daughter was born, we had a particularly long stretch of sleepless nights. It was winter, everyone was sick with a cold, and because our bodies were still adjusting to Taiwanese germs, this cold seemed to stay with us for the whole month. Our youngest was particularly uncomfortable and unwilling to sleep. We were told by a Taiwanese friend that many parents go to a certain temple when their children are sick, and that we should go there and ask for help. “It’s at least worth a try,” she said.
The most common objection coming from our friends who practice traditional religions is this: “Why should I pray to your God? I’m not baptized, so he won’t listen to me. He doesn’t know me, so why should he hear my prayers?” Our friends are adamant about the rapport they have built with gods who seem to be helpful to them. Maybe the best we have to offer them is: “It’s worth a try. Just ask Jesus and see if he answers your prayer.”
There is the reality that the One who formed us in the womb certainly knows who we are (Psalm 139). David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). In Isaiah 55, God admonishes all who thirst to come, and those without money to buy wine and milk without price. And as missionaries, we pray in a way similar to Elijah’s taunting the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) that the ears of these gods would be shut, the moon blocks be wrong, the answers received from the gods be empty and hollow, the requests left unanswered, and the only option left will be to call upon the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Even greater is the reality that prayer is possible and prayer is answered because of Christ Jesus. He is the agent of creation. He is before all things, in him all things hold together, and we have peace with God through his shed blood (Colossians 1). He is the great High Priest and Sacrifice, the great Intercessor who brings our requests before God and prays for us (Hebrews 4 and 10). All prayers are “Yes!” and “Amen!” in him (2 Corinthians 1:19-20), and even God’s “No” can be the best answer to our prayers. In a world full of options, we know Jesus to be the only viable one. Whether our friends practice another religion or no religion at all, it is always worth it to encourage them to give it a try and ask Jesus for help, because he is willing and able to do so.
Rev. Ben Hosch serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as a missionary for Lutheran Brethren International Mission to the unreached people of Taiwan.