Eldest just wrapped up a week spent helping a local church with their vacation Bible school. The theme for this year was Rome and the early church, done living-history style. Eldest played the part of a Roman Christian shopkeeper, dressing in a toga and serving “rat on a stick” (chicken), bread and fruit to the “townspeople”. They had canopies set up like a Roman marketplace, a room where Paul was imprisoned, and a realistic cave created in one room complete with dripping walls and an electric fire.
Youngest, Middle Child and I attended the last night of VBS. We donned bed-sheet costumes, tied sashes round our waists and money bags containing three plastic Denarii to the sashes. We met with our family groups (Go, Tiberius!) and sang worship songs to the jingle and thump of children with bells and drums. I took Youngest’s hand and descended the stairs to the basement, where Rome was set up under bright canopies flanked by walls of Styrofoam rock. We made tin-can lanterns at the metalworking shop, we painted swords and shields at the armory, ate dates and dried fruit at Eldest’s booth and had our picture taken dressed in full Roman attire. We visited Paul in prison, where he told us about his faith in Jesus and where a Roman guard who had spent the week harassing the Christian shop keepers professed that he had decided to follow Christ after listening to Paul’s testimony there in jail.
My favorite moment, however, was when we met in the plastic-walled “cave.” It was dark, damp, and quiet as the group of mis-matched and humorously dressed kids gathered together. We solemnly drew the Jesus fish on one another’s hands with magic marker in the artificial gloom of the makeshift hiding place. A part of me was there with the kids, but another was drawn back centuries into the reality of the early church.
Secret meetings, meticulous vigilance, persecution and hardship. Stonings, floggings, the constant threat of discovery. The brave martyrs and persecuted secret Christians of the early church are the foundation on which our faith was built, they are the roots of the church in which we now stand–unafraid and free–to profess our faith. I am reminded to be thankful for our ability to do this, for the beauty of being able to worship together freely and openly.
And I am reminded that in many places still, this is a freedom that other people do not have.
The days of the martyrs are not over. There are still places where Christians meet in secret places, pass out Bibles smuggled in by visitors, sing their hymns and pray their prayers knowing that they face prison, exile, financial ruin and even death if they are discovered. I am reminded, in a cave made of duct tape and plastic sheeting and surrounded by children in pillow-case tunics, to be thankful that I will go to church on Sunday and fear no reprisal for expressing my faith.
I am reminded to pray for those who will meet in secret this week, who will sing the same songs and pray the same prayers but risk more for it than has ever been asked of me.