Wednesday, December 26, 2007

CHRISTMAS VIGNETTES: First Christmas on the Mission Field - Part II

There I was finishing up my first year on the mission field in Latvia, and it was Christmastime. If you read Part I, you learned that Christmas hadn’t really caught on yet in newly independent Latvia in 1994, and that they barely had street lights, much less Christmas lights. But that was about to change, at least at my house.

I lived in a big, old house in the Baltic seaside resort town of Jurmala, Latvia, which my roommates and I affectionately called the Gray Box, because that’s exactly what it looked like. My roommates there included Mary, a fellow American missionary; Joy, a Filipina missionary; and Asya, a Russian student who attended our church.

Neither Joy and nor I had ever been away from home and family for Christmas, and neither of us was thrilled about that. Mary was accustomed to being away from home and Asya had never celebrated Christmas before and didn’t know what she was missing. But Joy and I both loved traditions and magic of the Christmas season as it is celebrated in both the U.S. and the Philippines and were longing for home and the familiar Christmas joys. Joy was drowning in self-pity and at first spent a good deal of time sighing, moping and whining. I, on the other hand, had anticipated this scenario and had determined in advance that we would make the proverbial lemonade out of our lemons. This Christmas abroad would be what we made of it. It would be different from what we were used to, but it could be wonderful. And here was an opportunity to introduce our newly Christian friends to all the joys of celebrating the birth of our Savior. There was every reason for joy. We just needed a plan and a little resourcefulness. Joy and I decided to buck up and began planning a traditional Christmas dinner, or as traditional as available materials and our lack of a real kitchen would allow. We would invite all the single missionaries and whomever else we could get to come from among our local friends.

I had brought from home a couple of strings of lights and a transformer along with a few favorite Christmas ornaments. We also found some Christmas decorations for sale at a local children’s clothing store (go figure) and bought those. I found a spindly, Charlie Brown-type tree at a farmer’s market a week before Christmas for about two dollars and we set it up in the “dining room”, which was empty except for our rickety dining table and 6 wooden chairs. But this room did have a big picture window where we placed the tree, with its colored lights, for all to see. We hoped that it would bring unexpected cheer to the dark and dreary winter days of passersby, and maybe stir some distant memory of a celebration of the Christ Child.

We planned our Christmas dinner for Christmas Eve night. A young Lithuanian family and their Bassett Hound who had been driving up from Vilnius and staying with us several weekends a month happened to be coming to town, so we happily added them to our guest list. That night, we ended up with two Americans, three Filipinos, one Russian, four Lithuanians, and one Russian Jew who had recently believed in Jesus as Messiah crowded around our table. Some spoke English, some didn’t. Thank God, one was a translator.

That night, the Lithuanians presented me with a fabulously beautiful and unique hand-knit sweater, which easily must have cost them a month's salary. The gift was to thank me for hosting all of them in our home so many times and for the many very late nights spent with them around the table talking about God, the Bible and life's issues. It was quite overwhelming and really added to the specialness of the evening. We also made a cassette recording of our dinner conversation. I had lost track of that cassette until I unpacked the personal belongings that I only recently had shipped back from Latvia.

Joy and I had done everything possible to bring the Christmas spirit into the house through lights, decorations and Christmas music, but more importantly through prayer and the pure and unadulterated joy of the Lord. We wanted Christmas magic for our guests who had never known the pleasure of celebrating it. They came looking for a new cultural experience. In the end, however, we all had a wonderful spiritual experience as God broke down every conceivable barrier between us, national, cultural or linguistic. Our evening together was everything Joy and I dreamed it would be with rich fellowship, God’s presence among us, laughter, good food, high spirits, warmth, love and joy—everything that Christmas is made of, even snow. We all basked in the afterglow of it for a long time.

Time prevents me from sharing more detail about our first Christmas in Latvia. However, even though those present at our table that night now live on three different continents, every one of us treasures the memory of that night. The Russians and Lithuanians went on to establish their own Christmas traditions. Joy and I learned that no sacrifice we are called to make in the service of the Lord ever goes uncompensated. Of course, we missed our families and homes, but we lacked nothing in the true spirit of Christmas. It really was a very merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Vignettes: First Christmas on the Mission Field - Part I

It was Christmas 1994, and it was that time in life that we all know will eventually come, but most of us avoid as long as possible—the first Christmas away from home and family. I had managed to hold that day at bay for 40 years, but now my time was up. This Christmas found me in Latvia, 8,000 miles, one ocean and one continent away from my family in South Carolina. I was nearing the end of my first year on the mission field there. To help you understand the setting of this story, I need to tell you a little bit about Latvia at that time.

Latvia is a small republic that had been independent from the Soviet Union for less than three years. For the previous 50 years, the atheistic Soviet Grinch had stolen Christmas, forbidding all public celebrations, and replaced it with New Year’s celebrations that included “New Year’s trees” and New Year’s gift giving. Although Christmas celebrations in the newly independent Latvia where no longer forbidden, western style decorating and celebration had yet to catch on. So, while back home the magical lights and colors of Christmas glittered and gleamed and holiday cheer overtook everyone, in Latvia, everything remained dark and cheerless.

And I do mean dark. Latvia was so poor without its former Soviet subsidies and before the market economy kicked in that the city didn’t even turn on street lights at night. To go out at night without a flashlight was to take one’s life into one’s own hands, as sidewalks were plagued by tree roots, missing pavers and uncovered manholes, so tripping or even disappearing beneath the sidewalk was a constant threat. At home, families only turned on one light in just the room they were in. In apartment buildings, stair wells and elevators were usually completely dark, because as soon as someone put in a light bulb in such a public area, someone else would steal it. Add to this below-freezing temperatures and less than eight hours of pale winter sunlight a day. It was very scary, cold and definitely not conducive to a “Merry Christmas.”

Then, for a foreigner like me, there was the problem of procuring a “Christmas tree.” As I said, there were “New Year’s trees”, but these generally did not go on sale until about December 27. This was great if you wanted to celebrate Russian Christmas on January 6. For us foreigners and Latvian Lutherans who like Christmas on December 25, however, that was a problem. You could find one if you looked hard enough, though. Also, there were no full and lovely trees from a Christmas tree farm, genetically engineered for a perfect shape. In a country covered by forests, you wouldn’t think there would be a problem with nice trees, though. Think again. These were spindly sticks that looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. The good news, though, was that you could buy them for about two dollars.

All I’ve mentioned so far are only the superficial things, however. Saddest of all was that no one among my local acquaintances, even those who were new Christians and members of our church, had ever celebrated Christmas before. My missionary colleagues and I decided we were going to change that. And that’s where Part II will begin.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Christmas Vignettes: Christmas In Coronary Care

It started out in every way a normal Christmas, back in those days 25 years or so ago when there was such a thing as normal. Mom and Dad, my brother Bill and I lived in three different cities in the state, but we always spent Christmas at Bill’s house because he was, and still is, a retailer and always had to be open until late on Christmas Eve. So we were all there on this Christmas Eve.

We had shared a big breakfast and afterwards I went to take a shower to get ready to go to Bill’s jewelry store to help out on what promised to be a very busy day. I was looking forward to the day, and also to the arrival of my best friend, Phyllis, who was driving up to spend the holiday with us after she got off work that afternoon. When I had finished getting ready, I went back into the kitchen to find no one there except my nephew, Tyler.

“Where is everybody?” I asked. “They’ve all gone to the hospital,” he replied, “Your mother’s had a heart attack.” I was in a state of utter disbelief. She had never had heart trouble before. How could this be happening? Disbelief quickly gave way to fear and then to a harsh sense of the cruel irony that this should be happening at Christmas. I don’t remember anything else about that day, except the great comfort of Phyllis’s arrival in the evening. She happened to be a cardiac nurse and is one of those take-charge individuals that you love to have on hand in a crisis.

Christmas afternoon the doctors gave us permission to see Mom and to bring a few of her gifts up to the hospital, as long as we didn’t stay long. Bill put on a Santa Claus suit, although to this day I have no idea where he got it. Phyllis and I, who always loved to sing harmony together, sang some Christmas carols for Mom, which delighted her no end.

After a couple of rounds of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, a nurse came in, and we fell silent, assuming she was going to ask us to be quiet. Instead, she said that there was a very elderly stroke patient a couple of doors down who was unable to speak or move, but who had heard us and wanted us to sing for him. Would we come? We went straightaway, followed by Santa Bill, doing his most convincing, “HO, HO, HO!” We sang “Silent Night” for that old gentleman, and as we sang, a single tear fell from the corner of his eye. I will never forget that moment.

In the end, we traveled up and down the whole ICU singing to the patients with Bill “ho-ho-ho-ing” along with us. Bill doesn’t remember donning the Santa suit, but I have a faded Polaroid photo that proves it. That Christmas turned out to be one of the very best ever. Mom made a full recovery and was with us every Christmas until her last one in 2005.

What a joy it was to bring a little light into a place of sickness and sadness on Christmas Day. It just goes to show what we all know, but so easily forget in this over-the-top, materialistic age, that simple things done for others are the best and most important.

Places to See