Being Buddhist doesn't hold Thais back from celebrating Christmas. It's a new, and foreign holiday for them, but if there's one thing Thais love, it's a holiday. They hang lights, put up trees, and exchange gifts. "This is my very first Christmas tree," says Arisa, a university student in Chiang Rai, Thailand. "I can't wait to go home and decorate it! I want to surprise my roommate."
"For me, Christmas is all about Santa, dinner parties, dancing, music, fun, and joy!" says another student, Ploy. She bursts into a wide smile and begins to dance. "Christmas is giving gifts," Ploy continues, "receiving gifts, getting together with family." Her classmate, Villijs, chimes in, "I love Christmas music." As they talk, their faces light up.
As you'd expect, though, when it comes to Christmas, Thai's don't know the whole story. The decorations are beautiful, the presents are wonderful, and the stories about Santa and reindeer are thrilling to little children. Many Buddhist children even believe in Santa. They resonate with the feeling of Christmas, celebrating good will, kindness, compassion, love and generosity, which are both Buddhist and Christian virtues. Any chance to revel in the joy and sharing of the season is one they will not turn down. For this reason, many Thais will gladly accept an invitation to join a friend at a Christian Christmas service.
I realized that this is a critical time of year for sharing the real meaning behind Christmas.
Here on the university campus in Chiang Rai, I was one of the organizers of a gospel multimedia exhibition presented by Media Light. We are taking the opportunity to use the Christmas season to bring the gospel to those who would not be open to hearing or talking about Jesus otherwise. Here, in an open room under the school's cafeteria, the gospel is about to be told in a fresh, interactive way. Before this night is over, many will have heard a clear message about Jesus in their own language for the first time. One of them will have their life changed forever.
Coming together with young Christian students on the campus, we also bring music to the Christian Club's annual Christmas concert. It's a program that many students at the university look forward to every year. Villijs is one of them. Though a Buddhist, he never misses it. Every year he comes early, takes the front seat, and enjoys the carols, gifts, desserts, and message about how Jesus came to be God's gift to us at Christmas. "I love the Christmas carols. I always feel peace when I go to the Christmas program," he says.
Tonight, Villijs is sitting with me at the Medialight art exhibition. At the end of every school, Medialight students create media designed to spark conversations about the deeper issues of life and where the answer to life's most important question really lies. A university campus is a place teeming with questions about life. A live band is playing Christmas carols as students look at videos and photos. Staff, students, and Christian Club members initiate conversations at the tables scattered throughout the room and continue to talk as they paint visitors faces and craft “story necklaces” that describe the five biggest events of their lives. I shift from face painting, to story necklace where I met many students.
Villijs finishes his story necklace and sits with me. We both share our life journey with each other. "I wanted to try Christianity," Villijs says, "but I am afraid because I was born in a Buddhist family, raised in a Buddhist culture, and am even taking courses on Buddhism in the university." He's gone to churches before. He's heard the story. In Thailand, it takes a lot of time, often years, and many relationships before a Buddhist will ever decide to lay their life in Christ's hands. Tonight, all those years, all those conversations, and the effort and prayers of the saints come to fulfillment. Villijs closes his eyes and prays with me, committing himself to follow and know Jesus.
Through your prayer and financial support of this mission trip to Thailand, you have become part of stories like Villijs, helping reach Buddhist nations with the gospel in this Christmas season.
Last selfie with Vilijs and his friend