Saturday, December 02, 2006

Holy Days

We've all heard the quote from St. Augustine: "Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words." I agree with the Augustine's central idea, that there's value in a spirituality that shows itself more in works of love than in self-righteous ranting. Good works, though, should not be a subsitute for verbalizing the Gospel. Rather, they should serve as the seal of validity, the sign that the message we have received sets us apart from the world. (The apostles Paul and James offer some clarification on the issue. Paul: "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." James: "Faith without works is dead.")

Throughout the English camp, we had been keenly aware of the government restrictions that preclude any attempt to proselytize. From what I've heard (although I haven't had this objectively verified) it's illegal to preach the Gospel to any child under the age of 18. We had done our share of lifestyle evangelism. We smiled, hugged, played, and taught with authenticity and fervor, and it was unquestionable that our love for the children shined through. But without the Word, they might remain unclear about what motivated our selflessness.

On the second to last day of camp, we finally found a stealthful way to eliminate any ambiguity. The lesson for the day was holidays, and we started by asking some of the kids about their favorite Chinese holidays. Many mentioned Chinese New Year, the Dragonboat Festival and National Day, which commemorates the Communist takeover on October 1, 1949. We then found ways to relate these holidays to American holidays. For instance, we likened National Day to our Independence Day celebrations on the fourth of July, and we talked about how the Spring Festival is like Thanksgiving, a time to go home and visit family.

In this way, we were able to present Christmas and Easter in a natural flow of conversation as authentic American customs. We couldn't preach to them, but we could tell them what these holidays mean and why Americans, Christians in particular, feel they are so important to remember. With the help of a resident missionary, we translated the stories of the birth of Christ and his Resurrection. Citing miracles or parables would have been helpful, but we would leave that up to Tim and his later teams. This camp was called an "exposure" camp, and we were out to make sure the kids heard the essentials of the Gospel: Christ, God's son, came into the world to save those who had sinned against him (Christmas). To accomplish that, he died on a cross and rose again, displaying his authority over death and his ability to save sinners from it (Easter).

Having to teach something to children makes you test whether you really believe it or not. Airing your beliefs is risky because you put yourself on the line. When you preach to crowds, you have nothing and no one to hide behind. If your audience counts you a fool, you have no recourse, no choice but to receive a barrage of ridicule while struggling to maintain your measure of faith, like a climber trying to keep a handhold as an avalanche comes down upon him.

Surprisingly, it's easier to keep a grip in China than it is in America, where an "enlightened" society doesn't welcome a Gospel that calls on faith in the unseen. As Christmas approaches, Christians must stand their ground against the culture that seeks to redefine the holiday. True, it's a time for gifts, food and family. But ultimately, it's a time to put ourselves on the line, to reaffirm that we believe in a story that is ridiculous by all human reasoning. God came down to a small nation in the form of a baby, in the womb of a virgin, to be born in a trough in a stable. Not so we could receive material wealth (let's not sell him short by worshipping perishable things), but to ransom us from the sin that holds us captive.

Are you willing to dedicate Christmas to Jesus and the spread of his Gospel? If so, you just might unwrap a greater measure of faith this holiday season.

No comments: