It’s not just Christian, it’s American.

By Opinion Columnist for the New York Times

Blessed Are the Refugees

Under Donald Trump, America is ceasing to be the last best hope.

Displaced persons from postwar Europe arriving in the United States in 1951.
Credit Ernst Haas/Getty Images

A woman and her young daughter, no older than 6 or 7, are shopping for groceries in a corner store of a bombed-out city. It’s sometime around 1947. The war is over, the Germans are gone, the Gestapo is no longer hunting Jews. Some of their local henchmen have been imprisoned or shot. Many just took off their uniforms and returned to their former lives.

The mother speaks with the trace of a foreign accent. As she reaches for her wallet to pay, the grocer says: “Why don’t you people go back to where you came from?”

Where, precisely, would that even be? The woman had fled Moscow for Berlin as a girl, after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 and arrested her father, who was never to be heard from again. Later, when still in her twenties, she had fled Berlin for Milan, sometime between Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 and Mussolini’s enactment of the racial laws in 1938.

She and her daughter were citizens of no country, living under a made-up name. They had nowhere to return, no place to go, no way to stay, and nothing they could do about any of it. To go back to the Soviet Union would have been suicidal. Israel did not yet exist. Germany was out of the question. America’s doors were mostly shut.

This was the life of a refugee in postwar, pre-reconstructed Europe. It changed dramatically the following year, when Harry Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, marking the first time that U.S. immigration policy became actively sympathetic to the utterly dispossessed.

Thanks to the law, mother and daughter arrived in New York on Nov. 13, 1950, with only $7 between them, but without the weight of fear on their backs

What Truman did became precedent for decisions by subsequent administrations to admit other refugees: Some 40,000 Hungarians fleeing Soviet tanks after 1956 (including a young Andy Grove, later the C.E.O. of Intel); hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing Castro’s repression after 1959 (including a young Gloria Estefan); as many as 750,000 Soviet Jews fleeing persecution by a succession of Kremlin despots (including a young Sergey Brin).

There were so many others. More than a million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians after the fall of Saigon. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians after Khomeini’s revolution. Over 100,000 Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Similar numbers of Burmese. Altogether, some three million refugees have been welcomed by the U.S. since the Refugee Act of 1980, more than by any other country.

By almost any metric, America’s refugees tend to succeed, or at least their children do. Whatever they do to enrich themselves, they enrich the country a great deal more. Empirical data on immigrant success overwhelmingly confirm what common sense makes plain. People who have known tyranny tend to make the most of liberty. People who have experienced desperation usually make the most of opportunity. It’s mainly those born to freedom who have the knack for squandering it.


But beyond the material question of enrichment is the spiritual one of ennoblement. Of what can Americans be more proud than that we so often opened our doors to those for whom every other door was shut?

All of which makes this a moment of unique shame for the United States.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its xenophobia from its first days in office. The number of refugees arriving in the country plummeted from around 97,000 in 2016 to 23,000 in 2018. Last week, The Times reported that the White House was considering options to cut the numbers again by half, and perhaps even bring it down to zero.

As if to underscore the spirit of cruelty, the administration also declined to grant temporary protected status to Bahamians devastated by Hurricane Dorian. And the Supreme Court issued an order allowing for a new rule that effectively denies asylum protections for refugees arriving through a third country — a victory for executive authority when that authority is in the worst possible hands.

Critics of this column will almost certainly complain that the United States can’t possibly take everyone in — a dishonest argument since hardly anyone argues for taking in “everyone,” and a foolish argument since America will almost inevitably decline without a healthy intake of immigrants to make up for a falling birthrate.

Critics will also claim that “very bad people,” as Donald Trump likes to say, might take advantage of a generous asylum and refugee policy. Here again I’m aware of nobody advocating a “let-the-terrorists-come-too” immigration policy. Only a person incapable of kindness — a person like the president — can think that kindness and vigilance are incompatible, or that generosity is for suckers.

The mother and daughter whose story I told at the beginning of this column are, as you might have guessed, my own grandmother and mother. I thank God it was Harry Truman, not Donald Trump, who led America when they had nowhere else to turn.

Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. Facebook


A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 27 of the New York edition with the headline: Blessed Are The RefugeesOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Immigrants 100 Years ago

A missionary friend of mine, Ben Pehrson, who lives in Papua New Guinea and helps translate the Bible for native tribes, found this while researching his heritage. I love that it is written about the immigrants who formed our country one hundred years ago.

Ben says, “I share it here as it was published in the Fairbanks Daily News – Miner on June 9th, 1920. Although some of the terminology is clearly 100 years old, I still resonate with the overall thought, especially the last line…”

“The Immigrants”
by Frank Crane

At the risk of being deported, or of being raided and having my penknife taken from me as a dangerous weapon, I wish to state that I like Immigrants.

As far as I can trace, my ancestry is all American, and I was reared in the good old mud of Sangamon County, Illinois. Americans are my folks, and of course the best ever, but all the same some of the meanest white folks I ever knew were 100 percent American.

I love Negroes. They’re full of laughs, kind of hearts, loyal, and tender-hearted. They are pure human. Negro sunshine has done much toward making the world a happier place to live in.

I love Italians. I have lived in Italy, and a kinder, gentler folk do not exist on earth. I boarded with Signora Cippolini in Florence, and a more motherly, wholesome, and sweet-souled woman would be hard to find. No people love children and music and laughter more than the Italians.

I love the French. They have the supreme instinct for the two things that most enrich life–taste and joy. My sister used to say that if she had been born over again she would want to be born in France. And there is another saying which many appreciate that every man has two native lands, his own and France.

I love the British. At heart they are sound stock. No race has a deeper sense of decency, fair play, order, and justice.

I love the Irish. Who does not? Warm, witty, impulsive, generous, brave–“nothing’s too good for the Irish.”

I love the Germans. Oh, I know about the war and all that, but I also know enough to distinguish between a people and a diseased patriotism which tradition and wrong ideas forced upon them. I have lived with Germans, worked with them, played with them, eaten with them, drunk with them. And those I have known were genial, intelligent, kind, and good.

I love the Chinese and Japanese and all the Orientals. To me they are intensely interesting. They present our common humanity from a different angle. I can understand how some are fascinated by the East and want to live there.

I love the Swedes and Norwegians and Danes and Dutch and Poles and Russians. Some of them have made the best and most intelligent American citizens I have known. I have many delightful friends among them.

I love the Scotch and the Welsh and Portuguese, and would like to spend a long time in their countries.

My great regret is that life is too short to live in every land a while.

When I get to heaven I shall have time to learn all their languages and get acquainted with this my humanity in all its wonderful phases.

I am glad I am an American; I am gladder I am a Human Being.

I like that strange race, the Jews. No race is keener of mind, more idealistic of spirit, more loyal and loving.

And I don’t think I have to hate all other folks to prove I love my own.

Since it’s more critical than ever

The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity

Support for Trump comes at a high cost for Christian witness.

I just turned 70 a few weeks ago and on July 5, 2019 this piece was published in The Atlantic. I paused at posting this as some of my friends don’t want to read anything negative about our current American public climate.

More than ever I want to be honest and authentic in my own witness. Living as a believer requires integrity before God and the community in which we live. I feel that He would want us to think carefully about the serious observations being made about evangelicals right now. I feel that God always desires that we honestly look at our Christian culture through the filter of God’s principles and standards.
Maybe there are those who may be seeking some truth in these confusing times. It happens that this author has captured what I believe to be true about many in our evangelical sub-culture. I said on this blog at age 69 that I would be more forthright in sharing what I believe. And so I shall.
My age and my fears have prompted me to wonder along with this author as to what is happening to the evangelical Christian witness in our country. It shames me into sharing this article. I wish my peers were more open to talking about this.
I am an arm-chair sociologist at heart and a reformer by nature/Enneagram. My personal concerns come from a broken heart about how some have thrown away their Christian witness for a few morsels of so-called political progress.
I am considering what this author has to say as very serious. As a committed Christian himself, he has written many other worthy articles for The Atlantic.Please take the time to read this article in its entirety.

“Africa your time has come” Sojourners

Today’s article from Sojourners, Washington D.C.

Our Mission 

We seek to inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.

By Adam R. Taylor    

“Africa your time has come.”

Bishop Efraim Tendero, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), delivered this prophetic proclamation during the opening celebration of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa’s (AEA) new state-of-the-art plaza located in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. I had the honor and privilege of representing Sojourners at yesterday’s grand opening and dedication of the plaza, which will serve as an office, resource center, and hub for evangelical witness and ministry across the continent. But the event was not simply about a new building, as impressive as it may be. What made this moment so groundbreaking was the degree to which the building and how it came about represents a symbol and testament to the growing influence, sustainability, and independence of the evangelical church in Africa.

According to the Pew Center, “if demography is destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa. By 2060, a plurality of Christians – more than four-in-ten – will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26% in 2015.” In 1910 there were 2 million Christians in Africa. Today there are 650 million, with an estimated 200 million evangelicals. The explosive growth of the church across Africa represents a trend that far too few Christians in the West fully understand and that will likely reshape and over time transform the face of Christianity globally. Experiencing the AEA Plaza grand opening and participating in a range of side meetings and conversations over the past three days with African evangelical leaders has left me with greater hope about the future of the evangelical church and the future of Africa.

Despite my hopefulness, it’s important not to gloss over or ignore the significant challenges facing both the African church and continent. The continent has become the epicenter in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality, housing over half of the world’s people who are living in the quicksand of extreme poverty. Conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, the impacts of climate change, among other challenges, have long stunted Africa’s growth and suffocated human flourishing. Evangelical churches across Africa continue to be heavily influenced by various forms of the prosperity gospel and the Gospel Coalition. Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. According to the AEA “biblical illiteracy and heresy still remain a major challenge in the global Church.” But a revitalized and more vibrant evangelical church that is increasingly committed to both evangelism and holistic transformation will be an essential force in overcoming these and other challenges.

Founded in 1966, the AEA comprises 40 National Evangelical Fellowships as full members, serving as one of the regional associations of the global evangelical movement through the WEA. AEA and its members “join in common concern to live and proclaim the Good News of Jesus amongst all nations and peoples, seeking holiness, justice, and transformation at every level: individual, family, community, and culture.” To date, the AEA has founded the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST) in Central African Republic for the Francophone region and the Africa International University in Kenya for the Anglophone region, Christian Learning Materials Centre (CLMC) in Kenya, Africa Christian Television (ACT/PEMA) in Cote d’Ivoire, and the Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA). These projects focus on promoting sound theological and Christian education from childhood to the highest level of scholarship at university level, for effective evangelization and discipleship of the church in Africa. The two theological schools were the first graduate theological schools in sub-Saharan Africa in the modern history of the church.

At the opening, Bishop Tendero fittingly noted that because Africa has been the victim of colonialism and the exploitation of human and natural resources, it is both ironic and deeply inspiring that the center represents the first of its kind in the world, “which means that Africa is now being used by God to export the gospel and the values of the kingdom of God across the world.” Bishop Dr. Goodwill Shana, president of the AEA echoed this theme saying that this is a moment in which “the church must rise above the spiritual, political, and economic challenges facing the continent.” He talked about being “tired of seeing Africa being viewed as having a hand out begging. Instead, Africa is doing something for Africans and laying the stones for future generations.”

Just three years ago the AEA had fallen on hard times due to financial struggles and existed without a General Secretary for four years. Rev. Dr. Aiah Foday-Khabenje took over in 2009. The AEA was able to use proceeds from the sale of a piece of land to secure seed money to start the construction of a 10-story complex to house their new headquarters, which they hope will generate ongoing income. Dr. Foday-Khabenje managed to push through the project even though he faced significant resistance and criticism that this bold project was too risky and that investing in the construction of a new headquarters was too worldly.

Many African evangelical churches have traditionally been reticent to engage in advocacy and worldly engagement, in part due to their own comfort and desire to work with greater autonomy. A day before the launch of the AEA Plaza I had the opportunity to join Carol Ng’ang’a, founder of Msingi Trust, to visit a social justice center just outside the slums of Mathare. Msingi Trust mobilizes, inspires, equips, and networks Christians and community leaders toward social justice and social transformation. We met with a group of incredibly inspiring community volunteers who run the center, which has been focused on addressing a range of social justice issues confronting the community, including an alarming trend of extrajudicial killings of young people in the area. As per reports by Amnesty International and the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), between 122 and 152 deaths of civilians were reported at the hands of police in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The center is one of 13 centers across Nairobi where volunteers, who call themselves human rights defenders, are demonstrating courageous leadership to combat police violence and address other social injustice. While there are some exceptions, by and large the defenders reported a lack of church engagement in their inspiring advocacy work and activism.

I’m hopeful that the AEA will help to change this trend as they further equip and empower the church to engage in greater transformation. According to Dr. Foday-Kabenje, “if I care for the vulnerable, I must talk politics. It is not a question of whether but of how.”

One particularly encouraging example is an initiative called “The Africa that God Wants.” Building on the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the AEA hosted a continent-wide theological consultation in 2015 around that theme. The AU’s AGENDA 2063 is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress, and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance that outlines “how the continent should effectively learn from lessons of the past, build on progress already made and strategically exploit opportunities available in the short, medium and long term, so as to ensure positive socioeconomic transformation within the next four years.” The AEA sees this as an opportunity to develop a biblical vision espousing “The Africa God Wants” based on the gospel and the ability of the church to lead in transformation of policy and societal engagement, discipleship, and reaching the unreached in Africa and beyond.

Over the next year the AEA will be engaging with the church across Africa to shape a biblical vision that mirrors Agenda 2063, which will be discussed and approved at the next General Assembly in 2020 in Kigali.

These and other efforts make me increasingly hopeful that Africa has arrived, particularly as the evangelical church strengthens its commitment to advancing peace, justice, and righteousness.

 Rev. Adam R. Taylor is executive director of Sojourners. He previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group.

A friend speaks to 1500 college students



What a privilege it is to get to know Billy Graham Center Scholars at Wheaton College. We have met and become close friends with a number of BGC scholars who are awarded a scholarship to study at Wheaton Graduate School.

Since being involved with some of these incredible leaders from around the world, I presently serve on the Scholarship Selection Committee. Even today, I am reading applications for the coming year. These are the most incredible people. If I actually think seriously about the value of this scholarship, I could say that it is one of the best investments in missions. Indigenous leaders of this caliber are doing so much kingdom work that two years of furthering their training makes a huge difference in what they can do. I can validate that statement as I visited Robert’s ministry a year ago and what I witnessed was amazing.

But I digress. I want to tell you about this past week. Robert Sityo, my dear friend from Jinja, Uganda studied at Wheaton in 2014-15. Robert was invited to be the keynote speaker for Wheaton College’s Missions In Focus week. His presentation of his life’s story and all God has done was very well received (even standing ovations at all three chapel services). Robert challenged the students to live for Jesus, take risks for Him and above all, obey what He calls you to do. I know that you will be incredibly blessed if you want to watch these 3 (Feb. 20, 21, 22) chapel services on You Tube.


Urbana Faces the Challenges

Like many boomers, Urbana had a huge impact on me.


Christianity Today Reports

Urbana Faces the Challenge of Calling Gen Z to Missions

Despite its lowest attendance in decades, InterVarsity’s historic conference aims to combat student cynicism through scriptural hope.
Morgan Lee

Urbana Faces the Challenge of Calling Gen Z to Missions

Image: 2018 Paul Lee: Urbana 18, InterVarsity’s 25th Student Missions Conference

Plenty of today’s evangelical leaders look back to Urbana conferences over the years as the catalyst that drove them to ministry.

But for the shrinking crowd at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s (IVCF) triennial conference—held over the past few days in St. Louis—the path to the mission field appears more complicated.

The college students who attended Urbana ‘18, though passionate about Christ, hold different expectations for life after graduation, often taking longer to settle into a vocation, and carry stress over growing student debt.

“This is changing the way that InterVarsity and mission agencies are engaging with participants,” said Greg Jao, senior assistant to IVCF president Tom Lin.

“We need a longer-term strategy to help people who may make decisions about the missions field while they’re at Urbana as college students sustain their interest and commitment over the longer period of time that it takes to figure it out.”

Determining how to navigate these challenges as Generation Z enters college is crucial for ministries like Urbana. Attendance at the historic conference is down to its lowest in at least 20 years, with around 10,000 attendees in 2018, compared to 16,000 in 2015.

But the crowd and speakers were more diverse than ever, already resembling the majority-minority demographics of the next generation: 64 percent of attendees were non-white.

“At the conferences that I’ve been to that have been less diverse, I felt I was unrepresented and it was hard for me to worship well,” Daniela Bushiri, an engineering major at New Jersey Institute of Technology, told CT. “Seeing minorities on the stage means a lot because it shows us that we have a role to play in this community.”

Today’s youngest believers are more likely to find themselves as outliers for their faith. Barna Research found that while roughly 6 in 10 of Gen Z (the 70 million people born between 1999 and 2015) identify as Christian, only 1 in 11 can be characterized as an “engaged Christian,” whose beliefs and practices are shaped by their faith.

Religious and non-religious young adults alike are struggling to find hope, so leaders at Urbana are praying this generation embrace a view of the kingdom that combats their current cynicism.

“There is a lot of anger against injustices like sexism, racism, classism, privilege, and white supremacy,” said René Breuel, a Brazilian pastor in Rome, who who taught several plenary sessions. “Young people pick that up and feel that very strongly, but don’t always have a Christian vision of how the world will be mended and restored.”

The tension between the youthful perspective of 20-somethings and the sacrificial call to missions is not unique to Generation Z. Over 20 years ago, CT reported from Urbana ‘96 that their parents’ cohort also had a “shift in commitments.”

Generation X “is often characterized as one of slackers,” Urbana’s former director Dan Harrison said, citing caution over long-term commitments due to concerns about broken marriages and job security. “They’re not slackers or uncommitted at all, but they define commitment differently than I do.”

With a new generation and new challenges before them, conference organizers turned to the timeless truths of Scripture, selecting a text with a sobering understanding of reality: Revelation. Passages from the apocalyptic book were used for daily Bible studies, taught by plenary speakers, and recited in other languages including Spanish and Hawaiian.

“Revelation takes anger by hand to a place that is healing, that exalts Christ, where the nations flourish, and where we reign in serving each other under the throne of the lamb,” said Breuel. “It can be a healing experience of that anger portrayed in a good way.”

Conference sessions named and condemned injustice from the stage, including calling out atrocities committed in the name of Christ: the Rwandan genocide, Canadian residential schools that separated First Nation children from their families, and Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism.

“I did a lot of praying and asking God what he wanted me to do with my life,” said Samuel Chow, a sophomore at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Seeing all the bad things that the church has done and the repercussions of it has led me to be more conscientious about how I convey myself as a Christian and as a child of God to others who do not know him.”

The presentations on historic injustice resonate with young people who crave transparency.

“I’ve been talking to pastors who’ve asked ‘Why are we talking about the failures of missions in the past? Why aren’t we talking more about where to go or unreached people groups?’” said IVCF’s Jao. “What I’ve wanted to say is this generation requires a level of honesty and authenticity about our failures in the past before they’re willing to embrace the future.”

The historic missions conference has also had a long history in pursuit of racial justice, beginning with evangelist Tom Skinner’s keynote at Urbana ‘70. Urbana ‘15, also held in St. Louis, spoke directly to racial tensions in the US, with members of the worship team wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts and speakers such as Michelle Higgins challenging the evangelical response to shootings such as Michael Brown’s in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

Some at this year’s conference speculated whether the pushback over Black Lives Matter at the last conference or an IVCF staff policy on sexuality that went into effect in 2016 hurt attendance.

Though Urbana has drawn well-known speakers from Elisabeth Elliot to David Platt in years past, the 2018 lineup focused on personal narratives over popular names.

“Each person that gets up there, you’ll hear them say, ‘This is my blank Urbana’ or ‘This is what happened to me at Urbana ’03 or ’06,’” said Steven Grahmann, IVCF’s Arizona area director. “That’s what Gen Z and millennials want to know. This person has been here. Their experience here changed them. That could happen to me.”

Students listened for perspectives that could apply to their own walk with Christ or their future vocation.

“It’s very vulnerable of them to go in stage in front of thousands of people and share a struggle that they’ve faced and a struggle they’ve gone to in their life,” said Christine Lui, a biochemistry major at University of Texas. “That really shows their heart to share who God is and what God has done for them. It makes them seem more human.”

Others told CT about rethinking ways to incorporate missions into their career fields as a result of the Urbana sessions.

Over the next couple weeks, as thousands of students will return to classrooms and campus ministries, IVCF will be left to evaluate Urbana 2018, which concludes today.

With an attendance decline of nearly a third, the organization will examine what kept students away from the event—whether shifting priorities, scheduling conflicts, or other factors. (In just a few days, the Cross Conference will take place in Louisville, Kentucky, drawing a more Reformed and Southern Baptist crowd, and featuring former Urbana speaker David Platt.)

Just about 60 percent of the 10,000 who showed up for Urbana 2018 were students.

“What we need to do after Urbana is ask the question, ‘How has the ecosystem of Christian conferences changed? Is this a shorter-term trend or a longer-term trend?,’” said Jao.

“What we do know, especially because of Revelations, is that God is sovereign. He brought these 10,000 and so that’s our focus during this week.”

CT has previously reported on contemporary challenges to student ministry, including InterVarsity’s legal fights over faith requirements, Princeton Christian Fellowship’s decision to drop “evangelical” from its name, and Fuller Youth Institute’s research on churches with growing young adult demographics.

A Different Kind of Christmas (Part 4)

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.


A Different Kind of Christmas (Part 3)

by James Judge


I had agreed to serve as an adult sponsor for a Saturday night camp-out out in the valley, for some of the grade school boys. He proposed we both go, help the dads shepherd the group, sleep out with them and then go by ourselves to the Church service the next morning. I was feeling just a little hesitation because Brian’s reputation had preceded him. He was equal parts David Livingstone and Crocodile Dundee, with a little Mad Max mixed in there somewhere. Even amongst a group of missionaries renown for their independence, Brian was known as a bit of a loose cannon.  He was single, had a kind of “cleaned up hippie” look, rode a big motorcycle, and was capable of turning just about anything into an adventure. He impressed me as the kind of guy who, if he ditched his bike at sixty miles per hour and broke a leg, could probably set it himself and walk the five miles home, whistling, with the motorcycle slung over his shoulders. In other words, a kind of guy not a whole lot like me. But the prospect of a night of camping in the open, under the stars, and participating in a real Kikuyu Christmas service was too enticing, so I accepted.


The day of the camp-out arrived. Brian led the way down to the valley on his motorcycle while three other dads, myself, twelve boys and all our gear were crammed into two old vans. The several miles of road leading from the mission station to the valley floor below were intermittently stone and then dirt and then stone again and it was soon obvious our vehicles were not blessed with anything remotely close to shock absorbers. Each bump generated a seismic force capable of realigning your spine. The ten-year-old boys provided their own sound effects; screaming with glee every time we hit a new crater, as if we were on a ride at an amusement park, which I guess was pretty close to the truth. When we got to the bottom of the hill, we turned left and headed way out into the valley, soon off-roading it in search of the perfect place to camp for the night. We ended up near a small ravine, within sight of a few giraffe and straggling antelope. They looked us over with a casually, pretending not to care, as they munched lazily on the brush. But it was soon obvious they were less than excited about their new neighbors. While we were busy unloading the gear, each time I looked up, the animals became progressively smaller and smaller, as they moved ever so slowly, ever so noiselessly away. I wondered if they were trying not to offend. With just so much late afternoon sunlight left, we went straight to gathering wood and dry brush for the building of a fire, which, as men are prone to do, we sort of overdid. As the sun faded, the fire grew. And grew. And grew. My wife and daughters later told me they could tell exactly where we camped that night because, even from ten miles away, they could see the immense size of our signal fire burning out in the valley. We were probably identifiable from space.

Once it was dark, we roasted hot dogs, ate potato chips, and just laid back on our sleeping bags and took it all in. The boys did what boys do with a fire, they meddled and poked at it incessantly, and each time they did a shower of sparks would billow up into the absorbing blackness of the night sky. I traced the path of the glow-orange embers as they raced skyward on their smoky escape. They cooled as they rose, faded for just an instant, and then, in the blink of an eye, seemed to be reborn as a host of white-hot stars- the strange, unfamiliar stars of the southern sky, visible only from the other side of the world. Their sheer number and clarity was shocking, making them seem almost within grasp. It made me feel as if I could reach up and rearrange the newly born stars into constellations of my own design. I remember thinking, this was the kind of sky Abraham must have beheld as the echo of God’s promised descendants still rang in his ears. Look up! Your descendants shall be as the stars in the heavens. Sitting there with that star strewn expanse canopied low over our heads, dirty, tired, hypnotized by the dancing fire, I flashed to another group of men and boys, two thousand years earlier. Those first Christmas shepherds must have lain around their great signal fire much like we were now.  It was easy to imagine the star-pierced black velvet curtain being pulled back, and someone, dressed like the sun, stepping through, blinding us, even as he had them, with the announcement of the greatest of news. For a moment, a quiet moment full of expectation, I imagined myself a different kind of shepherd.

Campfires and storytelling go hand in hand and it didn’t take long for ours to begin. Our stories that night went the direction all stories seem to go for ten-year-old boys, grown-up and otherwise…straight to the sensational. And who better to lead us that direction than Brian, who had just about seen, heard and experienced it all. Soon there were stories being traded all around, with Brian invariably applying the trump card, about who had had what crawl into their sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Stories that greenhorn, tenderfoot, suburban doctors with 7 different kinds of insurance, don’t necessarily need to hear right before bedtime, when sleeping out in the open in Africa. Believable stories of people who, while sleeping out in the African landscape, much like we were now, had let their campfires burn a little too low and been awakened to find themselves being dragged off toward the bush by some hyena. A hyena that only let go and retreated when the camper was able to grab a stick and pound the animal on the head. I wondered if I was the only wide-eyed boy sitting around the campfire that night scanning the area for an appropriate weapon to keep within reach, just in case. As we lay down to sleep, I positioned my bag just a little closer to the fire, convinced smoke inhalation would be far better than providing a meal for something, even now, lurking in the dark, waiting for some dumb short-term missionary like me to doze off and let the fire burn too low. If sleep came that night, it came fitful and in short shots. I definitely saw the sun rise the next morning.

A Different Kind of Christmas (continued)

Excerpts from Unfamiliar Territory by James Judge


Two nights later we were preparing for the station’s missionary Christmas program. One of the most important things short-term people can bring to a missionary setting is some extra energy. The just plain fatiguing, everyday cost of living overseas can take its toll on missionaries. Often, there isn’t a lot left over for the creative side of life. I got the idea the month of December to write a short Christmas program. It came to me after we had decorated the tree and I realized this was the first Christmas since we were married that we didn’t have our nativity set. I missed the old familiar ceramic characters. Cindy’s Aunt Pauline had given us one or two pieces a year during our first several years of marriage and it was as much a required piece of Christmas as the tree or the presents. So I began to write about them, somehow hoping to connect with them, I think. With Cindy’s help, the writings evolved into a small production. My idea was to create a series of short readings about the different characters there that night in Bethlehem. By writing from each character’s perspective, I was hoping for new eyes, maybe a fresh view of the manger. What was it like to experience His birth as an angel, or a king, or a little shepherd boy on his knees? What thoughts ran through Joseph’s mind as he looked into that manger, knowing he was to be the earthly father to the Son of God? After writing them, we recruited several friends to do the readings. The night of the program, we decorated the station meeting hall with hay and as much Christmas candlelight as we could muster. Before each person read their particular part, small children, dressed as that character, slowly walked forward through the middle of the room, while all the rest of us sang them to their places with a verse or two of a related carol. We Three Kings, Angels We Have Heard on High, Silent Night. The children took their parts very seriously as they made their way toward the makeshift manger sitting there beneath a tinfoil star. Jenny was Mary, and something about seeing her colored in the candle’s glow, a blue muslin shawl draped over her head and shoulders, so tiny, so serious, moving slowly, carefully, ever so carefully, toward the manger, moved me unexpectedly. She carried the doll that served as the baby Jesus with a sense of reverence and awe six year olds are not supposed to have. And when she laid him gently in the manger with such extreme, loving care, the room was struck to the core. The combination of the candlelight and the season, the sweet, familiar songs, the simplicity of the moment, the innocence of the children, and the power of the words combined to take us all closer to the heart of Christmas than I think anyone could have foreseen.


Come to the Cradle

by Jim Judge


Bewildered yet believing. Equal parts doubt and faith. Sometimes it’s very easy for us to identify with Mary.

Do you remember her song? Her spontaneous poetic lyric in response to the angel’s announcement that from her would come one who would be great, the son of the Most High, a king to rule over the house of Jacob, one whose kingdom would have no end? From her? An uneducated, simple, ordinary teenage girl who would from that moment on, never be ordinary again. For generation after generation she would be called blessed, favored, chosen.

And this murmuring of angels would be a thing that she would never be able to let go, but instead would “treasure these things and ponder them in her heart.” Her only conclusion… this great thing that had been done for her flowed from the heart of “ the mighty one”. And her emotional response to it all was a profound humility.

Humility is often our own response as we approach this season of His birth. We come tenderly to the manger, we tread lightly, almost unable to believe our own great privilege. The scriptures say Mary was “overshadowed by the Most High” and gave birth to something entirely good.  And at times this past year, so were we.  Maybe we gave birth to a moment of kindness, a touch, a time where we brought healing to a hurting soul, built a bridge, broke down a wall, made a home in our heart for another.

We look back over a year of God’s providence, of His care, of His extravagant prodigal love and we like Mary, wonder. We treasure the fact that he might use us, flawed and failing as we are. Impossible we think, but then we hear the angel’s words to Mary echo in our own hearts as they must have echoed in hers over and over and over again. “With God, nothing is impossible”.

Sometimes we come to his cradle humbly, overwhelmed by our own outrageous and blessed good fortune.


Joseph, a character in this story, as if almost in the shadows, somehow struggling for a sense of belonging, fighting hard the inadequacy he felt for the task that lay ahead.

I try to imagine how Joseph felt as he approached the cradle. The impossibility of it all must have been daunting. The staggering responsibility of being the earthly father of this heavenly child. I imagine him thinking, how can a man, especially a man like me so full of shadows and questions, be father to the son of God? How does one father his own creator? What do I know about raising a king?

Sometimes we approach the cradle just like Joseph, puzzled and pondering,  struggling with the task he has put before us.


The angels understood the full reality of what was set in motion by the birth of the Christchild better than anyone else there that night.  Their witness was especially valid because of their unique perspective. Positioned halfway between heaven and earth, they were in fact the perfect witnesses, no one had the complete view that the angels enjoyed that evening.  None knew better just what His coming meant. After all, they had been with Him at creation and in the halls of heaven. They had witnessed the oneness, the perfect abiding of the son with the father. These who had danced at creation and hidden their faces at the fall, now witnessed the opening of the final act of the divine drama of reconciliation. God reaching down in love with hands of flesh. “Immensity cloistered within a tiny womb” as John Donne described it. The uncreated one, who had no need, making himself needy, dependent on of all things, His own creation.

And so with the curtain going up, their response now was to break forth into their own kind of applause…..spontaneous, joyous singing. The gospel account says that the angel’s emotion could not be repressed, and that a great host of them suddenly overwhelmed with the reality of what this birth meant for eternity, broke out of their usual invisible form and announced the event with glory and light and song.

Some years Joy is our only conceivable response to Christmas. Sometimes unbridled, overflowing, spontaneous joy. Our smile is uncontrollable and the grace welling up within us is not containable, spilling out in full measure to those around us. You honestly feel like running through the streets like some sort of redeemed Scrooge or George Baxter in the final scene of “It’s a wonderful life shouting the good news of Christmas to everyone in sight. Some years the reality of just what His presence in our lives really means is so overwhelming that we are swept out of our usual reserve by a great compelling tide of joy.

Yes, sometimes when we come to his cradle it is with dancing and with joy.


 They were simple men, these rude shepherds, resting after a day like any other. They had spent a thousand nights just like this one. Sitting around the dancing campfire’s light, lying back against the soft green pillow of a grassy bank, peering out into an ink black heaven punctuated by a billion stars. Undoubtedly they talked of the day, exchanging stories, with the soft distant sounds of bleating sacrifice-bound sheep all around them. Then suddenly in their midst stood an angel of the Lord and immediately all about them a light shone that dwarfed the fire and the stars. The light was the glory of God himself. The angel saw their great fear and tried to still their trembling hearts. It was good news he bore. Not news of deserved judgment but of undeserved favor, of a savior, a savior for all people, a savior for them. No sooner had the words been spoken,  then suddenly the host of stars above them was outnumbered by a greater host of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth.”

After the song and the glory of the angels had faded, the shepherds response was a simple one. Now I don’t know about you but I might have been tempted to rub my eyes, look at the other shepherds and say “did you see that?!” But there was no questioning for these shepherds. They looked at one another and said “let’s go, let’s see this thing that has happened”. And as scripture says “they came in haste” to the manger.  That’s bible lingo for running like crazy men!! They took off, and left their sheep and their belongings and what looked like their senses and ran like excited children dropped off at Disneyland’s gate.

These bold, brash simple men approached the cradle with a bold and brash and simple faith.  They knew what they had been told, they came to see and lay claim to their part of the miracle of his coming, and then they told everyone who would listen as they danced their way home. They left glorifying and praising God.  All of Bethlehem knew what had happened to them.

There are years in our lives when we come upon His birth with the same bold, simple confidence demonstrated by those ancient shepherds. We come in Faith saying, “Yes, Lord, it has turned out just as you said it would. You promised and you delivered on that promise. You, lord are trustworthy.

Sometimes we come to his cradle, like the shepherds, with sure and simple faith.

The Wisemen

The Magi were specialists in astrology, medicine, and the natural sciences. Wisdom had made them wealthy. But it had also left them with a burning vacuum inside. As with so many honest men who study the creation, they were led to a deep desire to know the creator. They were familiar with the 600 year old messianic prophecies of another Magi, Daniel and were expecting some stellar sign of the Jewish Messiah’s birth.  Night after night they must have looked up into the sky, wanting to see beyond, wanting to peer into the mysteries of heaven itself. So when Christ’s natal star appeared, they were prepared. They knew this star of singular purpose signaled the birth of no ordinary king. The light of this star led to the very one deserving their worship.

We know only that they came from the East, came seeking the one foretold in the Jewish scriptures, the newborn king of the Jews. They themselves were not Jews, they were seekers. They went straight away, to Jerusalem to the royal palace, naturally, where else would you look for a king? But he was not there, instead a stable turned out to be his palace. And there they found the one to whom all their knowledge of the creation seemed to point. There they found the child, bathed in shekina starlight.

And the sight of the child evoked a common response from these men of wisdom. It evoked a deep, insatiable desire to give. They gave their treasures; costly frankincense, a king’s gold, and rare spices. But more importantly these men gave their worship, they gave their hearts, they gave themselves.

Sometimes it is an almost uncontrollable urge to give that overtakes us as we look down into the cradle and see the Christchild’s face. It’s all we can think of, the sheer wonder of His life-gift drives us to respond in kind and give. The costliness of God’s great gift to us makes us want to imitate our Father and give in a costly fashion to those around us. Yes sometimes we come to his cradle with our arms outstretched, offering all we hold dear. Our abilities, our possessions, our time, our children, our plans, our lives.

Yes, sometimes, like the wisemen, we come giving.

God the Father

There was another there that first night, one who is rarely pictured in any painting of the nativity; one for whom there is not character set aside in the manger scenes or plays. One we sometimes forget about when we think about the birth of Jesus. One whose heart was no less filled than Mary or Joseph. Yes, there was another there that night. Another who loved Him. Another father, God the Father.

Shift your focus away from the manger scene and instead, just for a moment look up. Travel in your mind’s eye to heaven. Think of a father standing at heaven’s door, bidding farewell to a son, knowing full well what lies ahead; a mysterious and holy blend of limitation, and pain, and earthly love, and laughter and tears and death, and separation, and glory. A father knowing that what awaited his son was not only Bethlehem, but also Calvary.  The Christchild’s first father knew that this moment of incarnation set in motion a great tragedy…..and an even greater triumph.

Sometimes, like God the Father we look down upon the child and see not only the cradle, but also the cross.  And at those times we come to the cradle solemnly, our own hearts both full and broken, in quiet reverence.


How do you come to his cradle this year? Humbly, fearfully, feeling inadequate, full of wonder, overpowered with joy, moved to give, solemn in heart? It’s a good question to ask, you know, because you see there was one more group of people we haven’t talked about tonight. They are conspicuous in their absence. They were consumed with the busyness of their own lives and missed His coming altogether. They somehow didn’t notice the star that blazed overhead. They had meals to cook and homes to clean. They somehow missed the wild shepherds rushing past them and wilder stories circulating of angelic concerts. Somebody had to keep on working, and with all those visitors in Bethlehem, hey, there was a shekel or two to be made.  They missed the magi’s later visit, even though we are told it disturbed all of Jerusalem, imagine what a stir it must have caused in Bethlehem. They were simply looking the other way. And the rumors of a Savior’s birth passed by them like so much inconsequential gossip. They thought it had nothing to do with their real lives. The sign in their heart flashed no vacancy, full up.

There are Christmas’s when we are more like this group than we would ever like to admit. Our lives crammed full of business and busyness and we find Christmas has come and gone and we have not approached His cradle at all.

So over the days that remain until the coming of the child king, ask yourself, “how will I approach the cradle-throne this year?”

You might approach unlike any we have talked about tonight. You might approach in a fashion that is completely and uniquely your own.

What is important is that you come, come and worship Christ, born that silent night.  (sing Silent Night)

A Different Kind of Christmas

From my husband’s book,  Unfamiliar Territory I have decided to go down memory lane to our year in Kenya in 1990 and share the chapter that Jim wrote about our Christmas that year. I will share it on my blog each week in December. It is the account of 5 suburbanites from Wheaton, Illinois living in Kenya that year. God gave us experiences and memories that we still share with each other. Enjoy.

unfamiliar territory cover

A Different Kind of Christmas

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

Charles Dickens

As December approached, it brought with it the realization we were in for a very different kind of Christmas. Because Kijabe is just on the other side of the equator, weather-wise, December is really more summer than winter. Day after flawless day, the same thing: 78 degrees and sunny, which I suppose works for you if you are from one of those places like Los Angeles or Phoenix or Orlando; places where people are supposed to visit, but never actually live.  But for those of us from the Midwest, Christmas arriving, unaccompanied by miserable winter weather, simply disorients us, leaves us feeling unsettled, off balance, like we’re about to get the flu.

The weather was just the beginning of what was going to be different about this Christmas. There wasn’t going to be any crowded stores with hurried shoppers, any Christmas music filling in the background everywhere. There wasn’t going to be any extended family or old friends.  There wasn’t going to be any familiar nativity set or special decorations or the usual church Christmas extravaganza. No, it was all going to be very different, very unpredictable, which was going to be a problem for me because I don’t view Christmas as a season well suited to surprises.  Except, of course, the pretend ones, like when we pretend we’re surprised by something we’ve had on our Christmas list for the last four months. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas is always supposed to stay the same: the same decorations, the same ornaments, the same lights, the same kind of tree, the same people, the same programs. I find something comforting in all this Christmas sameness. Maybe, if truth be told, something just a little anesthetizing.

Early on, it was evident that maintaining certain Christmas traditions in rural Africa was going to be a significant challenge. Starting with the tree. As one might expect, in Kenya, one doesn’t exactly find Christmas trees on every corner in December. That tradition, in fact, is one that is particularly suspect, because, as far as most native Africans are concerned, trees are a little bit sketchy to begin with. There is a widely held traditional belief that spirits live in trees, and therefore any thinking person would want to exercise caution around them. It’s not a good thing to park yourself or your house or anything else, for that matter, too close to one. Let alone cut one down and, horror of horrors, actually drag it into your house. I suppose today, most educated Africans would deny they actually believe there’s anything spooky about trees, yet certain beliefs do have a way of lingering in the background. It’s very similar to how most educated Americans, denying they believe bad luck results from walking under a ladder, would still take a wide detour into the street if they encountered one straddling the sidewalk. I am sure in colonial days, more than a few native Kenyans were left scratching their heads in disbelief the first time they saw an English missionary cut down a tree at Christmas, place it prominently in their home, get on their knees before it and give it water, adorn it with gold and silver and then, like offerings before an idol, place gifts beneath it. You can see how the whole thing might tend to blur the line distinguishing the Christians from the pagans.

But, culturally insensitive or not, it was Christmas, and we were going to have a tree. A group of families organized a bit of a safari… not looking to bag any big game, just a few evergreens. Missionaries tend to accumulate a whole wealth of little known, yet useful, information, like how altitude effects baking times for certain recipes, what to do for various bug bites, what snakes one should steer clear of (are you joking me?) and where to find evergreens in the forest that could serve as Christmas trees. So, the first Saturday morning of December, our whole family climbed into our “blue bomb” and joined the wagon train chugging its way up the deliriously twisting upper road that connected the mission station to the main highway at the top of the ridge. Singing Christmas carols in the sunshine, we turned left at the top of the hill and headed out toward a forested area many miles away.

Allow me here a brief aside on the subject of road kill in Kenya and its impact on the Christmas spirit. Whereas in the United States we bemoan rigor mortise afflicted varmints like skunks and raccoons and possums lying in the ditch, arms reaching skyward toward the great beyond, it’s a whole different thing when it’s a zebra assuming that same posture. Zebras, it turns out, are the possums of East Africa. The first one we passed, lying stiff on the side of the road, looked as if it was a life-sized stuffed specimen someone had accidentally tipped over. As we sped by, I had this overwhelming urge to do something, but for the life of me couldn’t think of anything more constructive than stopping and putting the poor thing back upright, which seemed little more than cosmetic. The volume on the Christmas carols would sort of drain away each time we approached one, then pick back up once it was out of site. Anyway, two or three zebras later, after about a half-hour ride, we came upon several acres of farmland adjacent to the great highland forest where there were a number of very, very, very, long needled pine trees that were fluffy and exotic looking and all wrong for Christmas. But, since it was a good seven thousand miles to the nearest Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, we decided they would have to do.

Everyone climbed out of the vans and, like GIs on a reconnaissance mission, fanned out over the unplowed field at the edge of the forest, trying to find that exact right, wrong-looking tree. The grass was chin-high on Jennifer, which made me more than a little nervous, as all the possibilities of what else, besides us, might be lurking in that field, started rolling through my head. This is what comes of watching too many programs on the Discovery Channel. As we made our way through the field, it wasn’t long before we encountered several mysterious areas, twenty or so feet in diameter, where the grass was smashed down flat to the ground. I could come up with only two plausible explanations: we had either just stumbled upon an alien-landing site or we were, at that very moment, traipsing through what was, in essence, some elephant’s bedroom. Worse yet, apparently in elephant etiquette, it is perfectly okay to poop in one’s bedroom because the other thing we encountered with disconcerting regularity was huge piles of fresh elephant dung. The word passed quietly between the dads to keep a lookout, because elephants were known to not take kindly to people tiptoeing through their boudoirs. Since they lack a full appreciation of the importance and meaning associated with the custom of the Christmas tree, they might just come charging out of the forest to express their outrage at the trespass. This definitely cut way down on my usual pickiness and significantly shortened the selection process. As we walked through the field, I tried to simultaneously keep my eyes on my three daughters, the edge of the forest, the pine trees and my next step. In record time we picked a tree, cut it down, paid an incredulous farmer for it and went hopping our way back to the car where we secured the prize to the top of our vans and headed home.

That night, with the Ray Coniff singers providing the proper, cheesy musical background (Cindy had remembered to bring the traditional tape from home) we decorated our hopelessly droopy, yet wonderful tree. Every year since Emily was born, the night we decorate the tree, we’ve given each of the girls a new ornament. It’s always a bird for Katie, a teddy bear for Jenny, a lamb for Emily. It wasn’t easy finding these items in Kenya, but we did our best. Kate’s bird was a kind of crazy, demented looking thing we had found in the big market in Nairobi. We drilled into its back and jerry-rigged it into an ornament. Jenny’s Teddy bear we had remembered to bring from home. But as for Emily…well, lamb ornaments were definitely in short supply. So Cindy got creative; she bisected a toilet paper cardboard cylinder, glued a piece of real lambs wool to it and then glued four sticks for legs and attached a forlorn cardboard head. It was truly the most pathetic looking lamb I’d ever seen, but Emily, the world’s most grateful child, saw only the love and effort, and declared it the best lamb she had ever been given. We laughed the night away, as we strung popcorn and berries, made paper chains, and put on the one string of lights we had brought with us. All our artistic efforts were, however, lost on our Kenyan house helper, Loyce, who would periodically over the next several weeks, give the tree dirty looks, cutting a bit wider path whenever she was forced to walk near it.