“You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? ...Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” –Matthew 5:13-16
Last week in one of my English Corners I was attempting to explain some of Jesus’ teachings using the Sermon on the Mount as an example. Seems simple enough. Right. Except for the part where it wasn’t simple at all. It’s time I let you in on some of things I just did not anticipate about teaching the Bible in China…
Never mind the sizeable hurdle we have with the language barrier. It’s to be expected. And it’s actually pretty easy to navigate thanks to those handy electronic pocket dictionaries – even for words like omniscience and circumcision (which unleashed a chorus of gasps when it was “eDictionaried”). Some words can’t be eDictionaried, like transubstantiation.
The real obstacle is this: I am teaching the Bible to people who have had absolutely no exposure to it whatsoever. None. No concept of Christianity. No Sunday School. No “Jesus is My Homeboy” t-shirts. No In God We Trust. No The Ten Commandments on Channel 5 every Easter. No Easter, for that matter. For most of the students, what I tell them about the Bible is the only thing they’ve ever heard. On top of that, the majority of them have been told their entire lives that there is no God. Atheism is the official “religion” of the Communist Party and it is widely propagated in the public sector. And while Buddhism has a pretty strong influence in culture here, most people interact with it as legend or folklore – not so much a belief-system that’s to be taken seriously.
Let’s just say, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to tell Bible stories in my English Corners three times a week!
I began my Bible teaching endeavors at the beginning. I told the story of Creation and worked my way chronologically through Genesis up to the Exodus account. I stopped after the children of Israel began their wandering. I had been answering far too many questions concerning God’s justice and treatment of man. You know, the redemptive purpose of the stories in the beginning are much better understood if you already have some idea of the stories at the end. Honestly, what I thought would happen was that I’d start at the beginning and paint this portrait of mankind’s depravity. All the students would agree with me and feel so hopeless in their lost condition. We’d work through the stories, man would be lost, God would be the good guy, and everyone would be thrilled and jump around in celebration at the proclamation of the Good News! I pictured something very EeTaow-esque. But what happened was the students began saying things like, “God is playing games with man.” “Why is God so cruel?” “He just wants to control everyone.” God wasn’t the good guy. He was the bad guy, and poor innocent man was just His little pawn.
Wait… not exactly what I was going for.
So, I’ve changed my tactics a bit, not to avoid difficult questions, but to provide some important context. I don’t think starting at the beginning was a mistake. We were able to tackle so many questions and difficulties that may have never come up if we had started anywhere else. But when every problem we encountered was answered in Jesus, I figured it was time to make Him the focus. Now I’m spending lots of time in the New Testament telling stories about His message and ministry. We’ve gone through some parables, some miracles, some teachings. The questions still come up, but they don’t seem as cynical now. God can’t really be viewed as a cruel puppet master when seen through the life of Jesus Christ.
These last several months have been the most challenging ever in my entire faith walk – in a good way. Never have I been on display like I am now. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” I can’t hide. Literally everyone at my workplace knows that I am a Christian. Some people respect it. Some people think I’m crazy. Several times I have had students laugh at me when they discover that I actually believe the stories I tell. I’ve been mocked for saying that I pray and believe that God speaks to me. I’ve been told that I believe in a fairy tale, that God can’t be real. I’ve had coworkers say, “No offense, Jaime” as they sit and discuss Christianity. I’ve received looks of pity and condescension (isn’t she cute for believing that) and disdain. My faith has been challenged in every way and from every angle. And it’s not like I’m walking around like some super Christian weirdo. I am not making a spectacle of my faith in such a way that it deserves criticism. I’ve been given an opportunity to share it openly in a classroom setting, so that’s what I do. Everything else people see is just me (or hopefully Christ in me).
I’m not complaining. It’s actually pretty incredible getting to experience faith in this way. I’ve always been sheltered in my beliefs. Sure, I went to public school and I’ve worked in some secular environments, but even in those settings being a Christian wasn’t weird –not like it is here. I’m a total novelty. Everything I do is scrutinized. Not because people want to see if my life lines up with my faith – to prove that I’m a hypocrite. But, rather, because they want to see how my faith affects my life. People want to see if what I believe distinguishes my life from theirs. And I think they’re starting to notice that it does.
In the midst of all the criticism and ridicule (which is rarely mean-spirited), I have received some pretty phenomenal feedback. I have had several students tell me how much they admire me. They talk about how I am always happy and smiling; that I’m kind and sweet and friendly; how they admire my faith and wish they could believe as I do; how I seem to enjoy life; how I don’t seem affected by all the pressures they’re affected by. That last one is a biggy. The Chinese put a great deal of pressure on themselves to be successful. They are rarely allowed contentment – self, family, and employer all demand that they work harder and earn and do more. I’ve shared with them what biblical contentment looks like, and expressed how freeing it is to trust God with every aspect of life. It takes all the pressure off when you’re not the one required to make something happen. I told them that my future is secure – even if I don’t know what it looks like yet! I think my life confounds them.
So, all the challenges and hurdles of teaching the Bible in China are totally worth it (of course). I think they exist for my benefit anyway. My faith is soaring! I'm getting to truly experience Scripture... "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." -I Peter 3:15-16 I've never had to so blatantly live out what this verse says. It is SO so so so so good. I'm getting put through the wringer, and I love it. I need it. Maybe we all do, on some level.
Yep, Jesus was right. “If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!” I think I always thought this was optional… It’s not. I became a city on a hill the day I decided to follow Jesus. The question is, how bright have I been? I’m feeling pretty bright right now. But maybe some landscapes have higher hills and darker skies. Whatever the case may be, I want to shine ever brighter.