First Christmas

by Lou-Anne Patson

Our first year in Asia, I kicked Christmas’ butt! I balanced my toaster oven on my bicycle basket with a backpack full of flour and salt on my back and wobbled to school. I spent Christmas Eve making salt dough ornaments with 160 first graders, a gargantuan task that only an optimistic 23-year-old would think ought to be attempted. I taught them about baby Jesus and Saint Nicholas.

We joined the international fellowship’s choir and sang carols at the local hotels. I hand-crafted a book about Christmas and the gospel story based on cancelled holiday stamps as a gift for our local friend, a stamp collector and non-believer. I made apple pies for my office mates and my husband’s office mates and my teammates’ office mates.

After only four months in country, we had seized the season and poured ourselves out in every way possible. So how is it that riding that wave of triumphant outreach, Christmas morning found me curled up in bed crying over our Christmas catastrophe?

That Christmas was our second as a married couple and our first in Asia. The year prior, we’d been with my in-laws and I’d been learning their traditions, so this year would be our first to do it our way, and I was going to make it magical and start our own traditions.

Getting up early, I planned to make a delicious coffee cake for an unforgettable Christmas breakfast. I wandered down to our shared ice-cold kitchen and began the mixing and baking at our family’s allotted cabinet, with its two feet of counter space. The aforementioned toaster oven had made its precarious journey back to its place of honor, around the corner from the gritty cement mop sink that was our only water source.

Working cheerfully, I sprinkled the batter with nuts and swirled in the cinnamon sugar, preparing to slide it into the oven. The only sliding that happened was from gravity, and my $10 glass pan — found randomly at a mall at the cost of almost 10% of a local person’s monthly wages — slid off the edge and shattered on the tile floor, coffee cake oozing onto my slippers and the grimy tile.

In that moment, I shattered with my pan. I had no magic to offer my husband for Christmas, I needed to prepare a dish for the team lunch, and my dreams of a happy little Christmas celebration evaporated. I slunk back down the public hall to our bedroom, crawled into bed, and listened to my husband’s attempts to console me.

Him: We can make another one!

Me: I had enough ingredients for THAT one. I had one, ONE, pan that fit that oven.

Him: We can pick the glass out of it!

Me: We are not scraping glass-filled batter off of the public kitchen floor!

He finally decided that I needed a moment, left me to sulk alone, and went to clean up the mess that I had abandoned. I dragged myself out of bed, went across the hall to our living room, exchanged presents with him, and then got ready to face the team. It wasn’t what I wanted or expected. It wasn’t magical.

That Christmas, more than any other we’ve had before or since, reveals the heart of the first Christmas. Almost nothing about Jesus’ birth is a shiny Christian image that we would want to present to the world.

Mary, faithfully following, though feeling the scorn and shame of everyone’s opinions. Who hasn’t screwed up culturally and felt ashamed for causing misunderstandings or doing the wrong thing?

Elizabeth, welcoming Mary (and Jesus!) in pure faith and joy and giving Mary blessings. May God grant you an Elizabeth to encourage you throughout your calling and service.

Joseph, faithfully obeying though it didn’t make a lick of sense why God would ask this of him. But isn’t that the definition of serving cross-culturally?

Shepherds, getting the life scared out of them and glimpsing the very heart of heaven. Living, working, and raising a family abroad has moments that will scare the life out of you. May God grant you other moments, moments when you see His heart and He allows you to be His hand reaching out of heaven to touch the lowliest nobodies that He loves with an everlasting love.

Wise Men, men on the move, at great effort and expense to themselves, because God had given them signs that couldn’t be ignored, and they had to go and honor this king. Finding peasants living in a village was perhaps not the magical moment they were expecting to find.

And wasn’t that my heart’s cry in 1998? I was there at great effort and expense to myself because of signs we could not ignore. I was there to honor my King. And like the coffee cake I wanted to make, I wanted to be perfect. I certainly never wanted to be shattered and spilled out.

Anyone in our shoes — at least anyone who is being real — will tell you that cross-cultural work doesn’t often seem magical. There’s hay, dust, opposition, drama, and loneliness, and there has been since the day our Savior stooped to take on flesh and dwell among us, and he did it to be shattered and spilled out for us.

Take the triumphs when they come. Give them back as your gifts to your king. Take your catastrophes, shame, confusion, and unmet expectations, and know that the heart of heaven is with you as you walk (or maybe trudge, or perhaps barely crawl) through whatever this holiday is bringing you.

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Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a great big world, Lou-Anne grew up in a crossroads town of forty houses and then lived over two decades in an Asian mega-city of 23 million. She is a formerly competent educator, mom, and wife who is now more bruised and broken than competent. Learning to live in the broken means that she can walk with other broken people.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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