Mi gat 44 Krismas
Mi gat 44 Krismas. That’s Pigin for “I’m 44 years old.” In Papua New Guinea, years are counted in the number of Christmases you’ve seen. I like it. Christmas has always been my favorite season anyway, so why not count your years by them?
When I was a child, many of my Christmases were marked by traditions of our family, Santa’s arrival, a few carols, a wooden manger scene, and Dad forcing us to read Luke 2 before any presents could be opened. I sort of resented it. OK, I really resented it! Sometime in my childhood I remember thinking, “do we have to bring Jesus into everything??” My sister and I learned that Mark held the shortest version of the Christmas story, so as we got older, we always requested that Dad read out of Mark so we could get to the presents already.
I’ve never put this into words, but I guess I was about 12 when I found out about Santa and, even though we continued to get great gifts, the magic started to fade. I know it sounds strange, but I used to have an idea that if only Christmas could arrive, I’d get everything I wanted, and everything would be great in my life. Honestly. I’d spend hours going through the Sears catalog, ear-marking pages and making sure that Mom, Dad, and grandparents knew exactly which toys would make me happy. And I was convinced that if I got them, I really truly would be happy. So when Christmas morning came and everything had been unwrapped, I would inevitably feel let down, even though we always got more than any two kids could dream of. If I found out that an aunt or a cousin or some friend still had a gift to give after Christmas was over, I always had hope that it would be the ONE that would that would tie up any loose ends of disappointment.
As adulthood came into view, Christmas began to shift. When I was a child, our church didn’t celebrate Advent and I had never really heard of Advent until we joined a different church when I was in high school. Christmas began to have new meaning in the anticipation and the waiting. The scriptures from the prophets and the gospels were shared each Sunday as a family lit the next Advent candle and I was mesmerized. The hymns were sung at specific times during Advent and they took on a meaning, when before, they were all ‘Christmas songs.’ And each year, God managed to break in and teach me something new in this story that I’d heard a thousand times. Since the presents had lost their power to make me happy, slowly, I started looking for significance in the story. I started finding more joy in being with family, as I would sometimes look around and realize that eventually the gatherings would change when life circumstances or death separated us.
And separate us life (and death) did. 1998 was our last Christmas with Amber. I was 25. She was sick, but she loved Christmas and we were together. It was enough. If one gift had not been exchanged that year, it wouldn’t have mattered. After that Christmas, we changed our ‘normal’ family get togethers. It would never be the same again and we started dreading Christmas. There would be discussions in August/September to try to figure out the ‘plan’ for Thanksgiving and Christmas because we didn’t want to get to November on the calendar and not have something in mind. It needed to be different so that her absence might not be so obvious. Honestly, it didn’t matter what beach or state park we moved our family gatherings to…it was still a stark black hole where she would have been.
We’ve now had 19 Christmases without Amber. In that time, God has shown up in big and small ways each December. Christmas 2006 was our first as a married couple. 2011, we thought we would die of grief while we waited for the coming of our own child and 2012 was one of the happiest we’ve ever had, waking up on Christmas morning with our daughter. We’ve been part of several different churches and every year, I ask for God to reveal even more of Himself to me through the re-telling of the story. And yes, we have instituted the reading of the Christmas story into our own Christmas morning routine, much to the chagrin of our daughter! But we also talk about the coming of Jesus, Advent, reading scripture together as we wait, and keeping the Christ child in the center of our celebration.
This year, 2017, was the first in my memory that I ever spent away from home and family. I wondered how on earth God would teach me that new thing in this place that has 80 degree temperatures all year and where hardly anyone but the westerners celebrate Advent and the incredible significance of Christmas. We put up a tree and tried to keep our spirits high. We got gifts from grandparents and churches in the States and we were so thankful for Facetime and Skype that allowed us to see our families. There were several days before Christmas when our internet went down. I became very sad and the closer we got to Christmas, the more I cried. I just couldn’t imagine not being able to at least communicate with our loved ones on that day. One night, after a party on our station, we came home to find there was still no way to text, e-mail, or skype with anyone. I sat softly crying on the sofa when Amber Joy came up and said, “Do you miss your family?” I responded with, “yes.” Then she said, “Mary and Joseph were away from their families on Christmas too.”
I’ve reflected on what she said so much since then. In all of my 44 Christmases, this is the first that my life ever had any resemblance (however miniscule) to that of the Holy family. Our family of three are strangers in a strange land and there’s no familiarity anywhere. One of the other missionaries told me recently of a Louie Giglio sermon in which he says that Mary probably prayed a prayer something like this: “Please, please, please don’t let this baby be born while we’re in Bethlehem.” But that’s exactly what happened. And maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe Mary and Joseph had to learn from the start not to rely on the familiar to be their comfort and their hope. Just maybe, even the way in which Jesus came into their lives was for a purpose. From the first day, they would have to trust God completely when they no longer had the foundations on which they had built their lives: home, family, and their ideas of how the Messiah would come.
For us this year in PNG, we no longer have the ‘stability’ we once thought we had in the States. We are surrounded by wonderful people, but people who don’t know us or know our stories in the same way. We live in a mission house on a station in the middle of some remote mountain ranges on an island in the South Pacific. Before we came, Amber Joy was asking if Santa would know where to find her in PNG. Maybe I was afraid that Jesus wouldn’t find me here. But He did. Even in this place where all that was familiar and safe and where I was known has been stripped away. But He knows me.
I’ve been stumbling through an Ann Voskamp book, The Broken Way, for about eight months. And recently, for Christmas, mom sent me her first major book, One Thousand Gifts. The words of these books are resonating with my soul at levels I could have never imagined. In thinking about PNG, I double-highlighted:
“That that which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave” (One Thousand Gifts, 22).
“When you don’t know where to begin and you’re at the end of yourself, you get to be where all of God begins. What you always need most is need” (The Broken Way, 216).
I’m grateful for the foundation of all the Christmases before in my life, and even though it was difficult, I’m grateful for the first one that found me struggling to breathe. The baby in the manger has never looked more beautiful than He has this year.