From Unfamiliar Territory, by James Judge
The last installment from the chapter about Christmas 1991 in Kenya.
December 22 arrived, the Friday before Christmas. Although I was working hard at appearing otherwise, the truth was, I wasn’t doing all that well. Cindy and I had had the talk. There wasn’t going to be very much around the tree. We had both told each other that was okay, but it was, of course, much more okay for Cindy than for me. The visual of the girls coming down the stairs Christmas morning to our odd looking tree, with not much under it, was getting to me. I guess I need to admit something here: I am a compulsive, nearly out of control, Christmas gift giver. Actually, I am probably just shy of needing a support group on this issue. I believe it’s a genetic problem, blamable almost exclusively on my dad. In my home growing up, each year when the Christmas lists had been made and agreed to and the items checked off, my mother would swear my Dad to something akin to a blood oath that he would not purchase, under any circumstances, anything not on that holy writ. And having agreed to this, every year, he would, of course sneak out the week before Christmas and purchase all the items on that other list…you know the one I’m talking about, the list that any responsible child of parents who had lived through the depression would not have dreamed of mentioning. And yet somehow he knew, and there they were Christmas morning, all the items on that other list, that electric hockey game or that too-much-to-ask-for bicycle. I remember being consistently overwhelmed by Christmas morning and more than a little bit confused as well, because this kind of extravagance was completely out of character for my parents. In almost every other aspect of life, they had raised frugality to an art form. I remember thinking, something bizarre must have happened in the middle of the night. Maybe it was like the body snatchers, but with a happy ending: the people coming out of the pods looked like my parents, but just had more liberal spending habits. It made a kid feel pretty guilty, because I would have to think twice before turning them in as the spendthrift aliens they really were. Eventually, an explanation closer to reality took hold. I came to know this as my father’s love language. It was not easy for him to put his feelings about us into words. But this once a year extravagance was his way of saying something he’d wanted to say all year long. I unconsciously copied my father’s pattern, which, over the years led to more than a few heated, pre-holiday discussions with my wife. Cindy, being Swedish, is very committed to one particular Christmas principle…being fair. If you stray from your Christmas gift list, how can you possibly know you have been fair? And if you are not fair with this Christmas gift-giving thing, well, just think of the possible consequences? I’m pretty sure Cindy’s convinced that straying from your Christmas gift list would, in short order, lead to the eventual unraveling of Western Civilization as we now know it. But this Christmas, Cindy had nothing to worry about, because my hands were tied. As I made rounds that morning at the hospital, my thoughts were floating elsewhere. Had we been back home, the feelings churning inside that morning would have had me jumping in the car and headed, like an addict in pursuit of a fix, for the nearest Toys-R-Us. But that wasn’t exactly on the option list, so I just kept telling myself it was going to be okay.
At teatime I stopped by my medcenter mailbox and found a note telling me there were two packages waiting for us at the Kijabe post office, located barely a quarter mile from the hospital. This was very unusual. Almost always, any packages coming from the United States were stopped at the Nairobi post office and you had to travel there to pick them up. That meant nearly a whole day of getting there, waiting in obscurely marked lines that invariably ended up being the wrong ones, only to be directed to other obscurely marked lines, where you finally paid some exorbitant customs tax, before picking up the package. To have something actually make it out here to our little local post office was unheard of. The post closed at noon, so I called my wife and the two of us raced up to the post office, where Lydia, the postmistress with whom we had developed a friendship, happily handed over two large packages. One was from Cindy’s mother and the other from her brother’s family. No customs. Merry Christmas. When we got them home we sneaked them into the house without the girls seeing. There we opened the boxes and found all kinds of wonderfully wrapped gifts inside. As we pulled out each crumpled package, one after the other, I was in awe, yet felt pulled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, the amazing timing and unlikely arrival had me believing this was more than serendipity. Someone higher up than the postmaster general of Kenya must have engineered this small Christmas miracle. But, I also felt this tiny ember of shame burning inside, shame for wanting it so badly, for thinking that after all we had experienced, we needed anything else. The truth was, for the Judges, Christmas had arrived early that year. It was a gift to be there, all together, undistracted by all the stuff and activity that, although it fills up our hours, has a way of leaving us empty. That Christmas in Africa, we were full up. Full of wonder and believing and a nearly palpable sense of God’s presence. In view of what we had already received that year, those packages strewn wantonly across the bed felt so undeserved, so extravagant, so absolutely unnecessary. So much like grace.
Christmas morning came. Cindy was blustering around, trying to get the video camera ready. The girls were corralled and complaining at the top of the stairs, behind the ribbon gate we had strung while they were asleep, the gate that Judge tradition dictated had to be cut only by the youngest child, signaling the official beginning of Christmas morning. In that moment before the girls came rushing down the stairs, I looked at the tree with all the presents, and wondered what the girls would think. Santa was no longer on the list of options, even for Jenny. In a minute they would make the turn at the bottom of the stairs and, in amazement, realize that a Father other than me had provided the gifts on that “other list” this year. I surveyed the room. The droopy tree was getting a little brown around the edges, starting to look alarmingly like Cousin It. The gifts in their crumpled wrapping paper sat ready, waiting to tell their story. I stared out through our picture window at the valley far below and my thoughts went to the Kikuyu friends I had just met and the worship service they had shared with me and that precious egg and the piki ride and the campfire and the stars. It was, indeed, a very different kind of Christmas, and maybe because of that, one of the best Christmases ever.
It would be March before we would find out that we had, unbeknownst, shared in another small African Christmas miracle that year. On the other side of the continent, in Gabon, some good friends of ours, Bill and Mary Beauvais, were working as full time missionaries. They had experienced a severe several months. Gabon was in economic turmoil and in a way, so were they. Their own financial support level was low, partially a result of the Gulf War and its impact on the value of the dollar and Bill and Mary could struggling to provide the essentials. At times they were forced to make hard choices between things like medical care for a child and the next meal. Bill was experiencing that choking feeling Dad’s get when it looks like they aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain about taking care of their families. With Christmas approaching, they watched helplessly as they saw their children rushing toward a head-on collision with disappointment. Even though, unlike me, they weren’t the types to let gift giving get out of hand, facing Christmas with no gifts whatsoever was starting to get to them.
Three weeks before Christmas, their four-year-old son, Ryan, spotted what he wanted in an old magazine. No question about it. It was a small dinosaur, a small pink brontosaurus. “Tis a gift to be simple,” as the old Shaker hymn says, a gift afforded to many children, but few adults. For Ryan, his request was simple enough, he couldn’t see he was asking for much. But his mother knew this was an impossible item really, something not likely to be found in equatorial Africa. Mary tried to distract him away from it, even going so far as to hide the magazine, but it was of no use. Ryan had fixated on it. A pink dinosaur was what he was sure was going to waiting for him that Christmas. It’s one thing to know that gifts aren’t the true meaning of Christmas; it’s something else entirely to have to face a expectant 4 year old little boy, empty-handed.
Bill and Mary tried to think of other things. The Friday before Christmas, their neighbors stopped by the post office and brought back a notice that there was a package waiting for Bill and Mary there. The problem was that the post office was way across town and Bill and Mary didn’t even have enough money for the bus ride to go and pick it up. They told themselves it probably didn’t matter anyway, government offices have a way of closing way before the posted hours in Africa, particularly before a holiday. But their neighbors said they were going back by there later in the afternoon and just incase it was still open, would stop in and check. It was 5:25 PM when their neighbors arrived at the post office, which was scheduled to close at 5:30PM. There was no one there except one lone worker, cleaning up. They handed him the slip signed by the Beauvais’. He disappeared into the back room and in short order, came out with a large package. The return address was Jim and Cindy Judge, Wheaton Illinois and the postmark was February. Cindy had sent the box of items in response to a request Mary had made in a letter almost a year earlier, asking mostly for some unglamorous but unavailable items like a new mop head and tile grout. Cindy, taking seriously Mary’s admonition not to spend a lot on postage, had sent the thing surface mail. The post office apparently took the word “surface” literally. Where the thing had spent the last nine months was anyone’s guess; it must have been rowed across the Atlantic.
While putting the package together, as my wife is wont to do, Cindy also included several other unspecified items: clothing for their girls, music tapes, books, fun things from around the house. She found lots of things for Ryan’s two older sisters, who were the same age as our girls, but nothing seemed very appropriate for a 4-year-old boy. Just before closing the box, one item caught her eye. It was a toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, something we had gotten several years before. A toy promoting the animated film, the Land Before Time. It was a dinosaur. A brontosaurus. A pink brontosaurus to be exact. Cindy tucked it deeply into the bottom of the box and hoped it would do. When Mary and Bill unpacked the box in their room that night, item by item, they were overwhelmed by the things inside. There was something for everyone, everyone except Ryan. But when they reached the bottom and pulled out that last item, that pink dinosaur, that one thing utterly impossible to deliver, that thing no adult would be foolish enough to even consider praying for, they were stunned. It was a gift from the “other” list. A gift from a loving Father that required so much knowing, so much care, so much attention that it overwhelmed them. It was as if the sky had cracked open and allowed, for just a moment, a sweet glimpse of His smiling face, a glimpse we seem to catch far too seldom. It wasn’t a very big miracle. Not a million dollars or a life saved. It was a small item really, but maybe, maybe the greatest of Christmas miracles always come wrapped in small packages. Maybe they are, in a way, the simple syllables of God’s love language.