Monks hummed in perfect unison. Gongs echoed throughout the still air. Golden Buddha statues adorned the walls. Intoxicating incense mixed with thick humidity hung heavily in the air.
This was Leslie Nease's newfound reality. She was a contestant on season 15 of Survivor: China.
A fan since the show's beginning, Nease admits, "I felt called to be on the show, but, at first, it didn't make sense. Why would God want me to be on a reality television show that is often very un-Christian? I mean, most of the time people are stabbing each other in the back, lying, and cheating. But as I prayed about it, he opened my eyes to Scriptures confirming God's call to go with a spirit of love and integrity as his witness."
Her first audition was in January 2002. Sending in her written application and video tape, which connected mothering four children to being a successful Survivor, Nease was only at the beginning of a journey that would prove not only to be about Survivor but also about passionate personal faith.
Survivor is a reality show game where 16 Americans from every walk of life are stranded in the middle of nowhere and are left to fend for themselves. They're divided into two tribes of eight, and every three days they battle it out through an Immunity Challenge. The losing tribe goes to Tribal Council where they vote out one of their members. When only 10 Survivors remain in the game, they form a jury as they are voted out. This means they're officially out of the game, but they return to witness Tribal Councils and, in the end, they vote for the winner of the game's million dollar prize.
Because of the show's popularity and revered monetary winnings, approximately 30,000 people audition for each Survivor season. Knowing the odds of being selected as a contestant were against her, Nease still auditioned, feeling confident God was calling her to the show and optimistic that she would be quickly chosen. To her surprise, it took her 11 auditions—every six months for five years—before she was chosen.
"[With each new rejection,] I started to stress out thinking, What if this doesn't happen?" Nease admits. "But the Lord seemed to say, What if it doesn't? Do you still trust me? That was challenging because it shifted the focus off the show and onto my heart and motives."
Although she shed many tears over not being chosen over and over, Nease realized that sometimes God's lessons are more about the journey than the anticipated destination. But still, she felt strongly that God was leading her to continue auditioning. "God has given me an incredible sense of adventure and a desire for a good challenge," Nease says. "Survivor seemed perfect for me! So I kept trying."
Finally in March 2007, Nease received the long-awaited call. She would be a Survivor castaway.
Before the game began, she made it clear to producers that she wanted the other contestants to get to know her as a person before they found out about her faith.
"It's not that I'm ashamed to be a Christian," clarifies Nease. "But I know the assumptions many people make when they find out you're a believer. They presume immediately that you're judgmental, and they file you in a box without getting to know you first. I wanted them to see me as a real person, not a stereotype." But God had other plans.
During the first episode, the contestants were taken to a Buddhist temple for what the producers called a "welcoming ceremony." The show's host, Jeff Probst, explained that the local people knew the contestants had their own religious beliefs, so this ceremony was purely for welcoming and blessings. Nothing more.
During the next hour or so, the castaways moved from room to room in the temple. But as Nease moved deeper into the temple, she sensed a strong internal spiritual battle. On the one hand, the monks seemed extremely friendly and warm. She wanted to be respectful of them and learn from their culture. On the other hand, she recognized she was in a building meant for Buddha worship, listening to words being spoken over her that she could not understand.
With each step, Nease prayed for discernment, trusting that God would make clear to her if she crossed a line.
When they reached the final room, the monks placed 16 pillows on the floor in front of an enormous golden statue of Buddha that was encircled by hundreds of smaller golden gods. The monks indicated that the castaways were to bow down on the pillows.
Immediately, Nease's mind began to spin and her heart pound. It's only a game, Nease reminded herself. Knowing that God knew her heart, she decided she would simply bow down and pray to Jesus. "I kept thinking, I don't want to offend the locals. Plus, they said it wasn't worship; it's just part of the ceremony," Nease says. "But as I tried to put one knee on the pillow, immediately I felt the presence of God like never before. It's as if he picked me up and helped me out of the temple."
Certain that someone was going to be offended and knowing that it couldn't be Jesus, she quietly got up and walked out of the temple. As she did, she was painfully aware that it could cost her the game.
After the ceremony, the host called all the castaways down in front of the temple. He asked her why she left the ceremony.
"I'm not a religious person," she told him. "But I have a relationship with Jesus Christ and I'm only going to put my face on the floor for him."
"I didn't walk out of that temple because I was afraid God would be mad at me," Nease explains. "It was a fear of breaking his heart. According to Scripture, Jesus is the Bridegroom and I'm a bride. I would never tell my husband that I'm going to kiss another man but that I'd think of him the entire time I was doing it. That would break his heart. The same is true of God, and I couldn't hurt him by intentionally choosing to bow before another god."
He Means More
Despite the trial, Nease calls that day a gift. As hot tears streamed down her face outside of the temple that day, she realized for the first time that Jesus was truly number one in her life.
"I've had tremendously positive responses from believers world-wide because of that temple scene. I've also had some persecution from folks who think I was intolerant, rude, and inconsiderate," Nease says. "Some Christians even opposed me because I said I wasn't religious. They assumed I was ashamed of my faith. In reality I was making a point that there's a difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus."
Nease believes the experience helped her more clearly understand the apostle Paul's words in Galatians 1:10: "Obviously, I'm not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If people pleasing were my goal, I would not be Christ's servant" (NLT).
"I suppose everyone has an opinion," Nease says. "That's something God has taught me through this experience, that his opinion is all that matters."
For nine days, Nease braved the rough elements and muscled her way through challenges before being voted off. During that time she fell ill, losing 17 pounds.
"I hated to go, but I learned something important. Man's rejection is always God's protection. Nothing would have made me quit, so God, knowing it was time, ended it for me."
Nease recognizes why God selected Survivor: China for her, and, more so, why her faith was not kept secret. God chose her to model choosing right over wrong when the pressure was on. It also opened the door for her to explain her faith to others as she was asked time and time again, "Why did you leave the temple?" She took to heart Peter's command in 1 Peter 3:15, that as believers we must be ready with an answer when asked about the hope that we have. She was able to share her faith in a non-threatening way as a result of this choice, simply by answering questions.
Nowadays, Nease has no strategy to keep her faith quiet. Realizing that when we profess our Christian faith others expect us to be different, she sees no reason to let her Heavenly Father or the world down.
"Every day we're faced with choices. That means we're continually stepping into a survivor situation," Nease explains. "Our choices reflect our beliefs, and whether we realize it or not, our choices speak louder than our words could ever speak. People are watching! Others observe us with a watchful eye, waiting and hoping to see that our actions back up our words. People need hope. And when they see us living what we say we believe, they instinctively want to know more about our faith because they see that hope they so desperately long to experience."
Today Nease takes her message on the road as a full-time speaker encouraging listeners to persevere with God-given dreams, get gutsy for God no matter how difficult, trust in the Lord's love and provision, and most importantly, to develop a relationship with Christ so powerful that he remains number one in their lives.
"God taught me so much through this adventure," Nease says. "I learned never to give up on a God-given dream no matter how impossible it seems and that stepping out of my 'Christian bubble' is difficult but he gives me strength to do it. I learned to stand up for him, no matter how difficult. The biggest lesson I learned was that God means more to me than anything else in the world. And that is worth way more than a million bucks!"
Melissa Nesdahl is an author who has contributed to the Chicago Tribune and Pam Stenzel's "Love Lessons: Purity Is Possible" CD series' leaders guide. For more information about Leslie Nease's ministry, visit www.leslienease.com.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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