Christmas is coming . . . amid epic humidity. Über-hot spices. Unusual plumbing.
Dreamer and I feel like aliens in this small Thai village. They call us farangs: big noses, ghosts, white people. It’s December 2000, and we’re here with a short-term mission team. There’s so much to unlearn!
Culture shock flattens me. Think fallen arches of the soul.
Plus . . . deadly fire ants. Spiders big as hands. And roadside cobras.
I spent my entire 50th birthday getting here, crossing the international date line where time hiccoughs, then replays itself.
“Good thing we’re headed east,” Dreamer said. “Or you’d be 100.”
Friends, GodSpaceLight published this true story of mine last year. Pour yourself a tea or coffee and join me?
Today, wandering the winding, red-dirt village lanes, my feet feel a century old. Everyone else wears flip flops or sandals. Am I the only one wearing socks? Chronic nerve pain afflicts one foot, so I wear tennis shoes for support and micro crews for cushioning warmth. No shoes are allowed indoors, and red dust stains my socks — despite nightly scrubs in the tiny sink.
We’re here to assist the resident missionary. I secretly call her the Advocate. She mediates questions, cultural quagmires, and occasional quarrels, so she’s often unavailable to translate for us.
We all hone our pantomime skills.
An all-day Christmas celebration to honor Jesus — that’s what the Advocate envisions. We have three weeks to prepare. And no budget.
In addition to Western games and prizes and goodies, our event will include an evening performance. For Buddhists. Who don’t speak English.
Will I please oversee the whole shebang, she asks.
I’d rather clear rocks from her field for the games. Then I think of the Virgin Mary’s willingness to shoulder what seemed overwhelming.
“Yes,” I say. Reluctantly.
The Advocate also asks me to mentor an Earnest Young Convert (I’ll call him Eyc). He doesn’t speak much English, but she tells me he wants an open mic session, ceremonial dances, and a children’s sign language choir complete with white gloves and spotlight. He’ll also write a play.
Days go by. Eyc declines to discuss the script with me. Or anything else.
I should not take this personally. But I am (supposedly) in charge. Stateside, I have directed numerous performances. Here, amid impossible circumstances, I feel painfully responsible for the event’s outcome.
But Eyc, independent and buzzing with ideas, keeps dodging me. I probably seem 100 years old to him.
One day, he makes an effort to connect. Or is it a dare? He hands me a stick crowned with a steaming knob of meat. Mmm-Mmm, barbecued rat.
I tell myself it tastes like chicken. Might he trust me now?
I begin to understand the three Wise Men braving foreign cuisine, day after day. Did they endure heartburn? Anxiety? Nausea?
Lord, show me the way forward here. And help me tread gently.
Into the jungle
Mary endured the donkey’s lurching gait. Despite increasing discomfort, she sallied forth.
Today, map-less, I roam the jungle. I’ve been sent to ask a stranger to make traditional costumes for the mystery play. If only I had a translator. How dare I impose? It feels like white entitlement. I dread being misunderstood, resented, judged. The errand gnaws at my pride.
But I keep walking. I’m toting yards of colorful cloth. Once I find the seamstress, I’ll resort to charades. But how does one act out, “Please, you don’t know me but will you make traditional costumes, for free, so that children you don’t know can dramatize a Western story you probably don’t want to hear?”
The wind kicks up. All the palm trees look the same. If I get lost, who will point me back to the village?
I think of Joseph trudging mile after mile among strangers.
Breathe, I tell myself. Pray. And watch for snakes.
The clearing . . .
At last! I find the seamstress. I smile and act out my errand — several times.
She studies the fabric. Then me. A level, assessing gaze, which feels weightier every second. But she nods. I give her all the colors I’m holding. I wish I could pay her.
As if sensing my discomfort she smiles, and it’s dazzling as well as contagious. God has preceded me here, preparing each of us for this exchange. I tent my hands, in grateful respect. She returns the gesture.
Then she points out another red dirt path. I hope it’s a shortcut.
The show must go on
Daily, Eyc rehearses his program. Nightly, I wash his youth choir’s white gloves. Ah, the irony. Leader demoted to laundress: socks and gloves, socks and gloves.
My ego rankles. Chagrined, I ask Dreamer and my friends for prayer.
“We love you,” they say.
“All is grace,” the Advocate adds. “Nothing to earn. Nothing to prove.”
I try to absorb this. Jesus, the ultimate leader, served God by serving others, with love, no matter what. Born in obscurity, he not only survived, he flourished — despite the struggling economy, local politics, and limited resources. Much like this village.
I begin to understand Nazareth.
I feel less forsaken, but still displaced until . . . an idea arrives. Eyc prefers working on his Christmas play with the Advocate. Fine. I’ll create a life-size creche.
I scavenge scrap lumber for a stable. A teammate builds walls and roof line, guy-wires them to the Advocate’s house.
I raid her Lost and Found. A pillowcase crammed with straw and mounted atop upended bricks makes a fine swine. “Marry a man who owns a pig,” the village grandmothers advise.
Orphaned tube socks become winsome doves, with stray-button eyes.
If I can find black gloves, I’ll stuff them with sand, whisker them with dental floss: voila, two worshipful rats.
My creche will be amazing. Culturally relevant. Or I’ll eat my socks.
I LOVE repurposing castoffs. Surrounded by palm fronds, stick-figures with coconut heads stand in for the holy family. They wear traditional Thai costumes, sewn by the woman I met in the clearing.
Finally, something I can control!
Curious, bedazzled, the village kids handle everything. In their delight, they topple my birds and beasts and figures. Best to zip-tie and guy-wire all of them to the stable. The props, not the children.
Party food and games enliven the day. At dusk, our makeshift stage glows beneath a rented light tree. Open mic begins. The temperature drops. A shivering kid lights a nest of gathered twigs — too close to the crowd. Pals bring armloads of straw; the blaze ignites. What are they thinking? I corral two youngsters, steer them toward safety.
More little arsonists take their place.
Why don’t my teammates intervene? Smoke billows. Flames crackle and leap.
Meanwhile, the gloved sign language choir captivates the crowd. Rapt, they applaud, oblivious to encroaching fire . . .
Luckily, nobody’s hair or clothing goes up in flames. No one suffers burns. The brief inferno peters out when the rascally kids abandon it, to watch Eyc’s play.
And what an opening act! Child actors stagger, feigning drug highs and drunkenness. A sham fight ensues. Good Lord. Is that a hooker, crooking her finger, stage left?
I can’t watch. I escape to the Advocate’s kitchen, toe off my shoes, then stand at the sink in my wretched socks, washing dishes. A teammate enters, her face troubled.
“I think you should know the kids are dismantling —”
Oh no. The creche? My creche? I fling my dishtowel and hurry outside.
They’re tossing my cherished sock doves back and forth. Fighting over the holy family’s attire.
Turns out my teammate cut the guy wires for them.
I have no words. Choked by hurt and fury, I turn away.
An hour later, only a few guests remain. As our team debriefs, a Thai woman seeks out the Advocate. The villager wants the farangs to come to her house and explain Christmas to her husband.
We are amazed. The sole car in the village, the Advocate’s station wagon, can hold nine people.
“Who wants to come?” she asks.
I just want to go home. Instead, I’m stranded among jubilant friends, unable to shag a ride to the place I sleep. Call me the prodigal’s elder brother, but I want no part in the Christmas celebration.
Nor do I want to examine why.
Christmas Eve, an hour later
The team returns, all talking at once. When they’d arrived at the woman’s home, villagers crammed her front room, curious about Jesus. Eyc’s play must have presented the gospel, after all. The Advocate retold the Christmas story and led them in prayer.
Each person there had pledged to follow Jesus.
Luminous now, my teammates turn to me. Isn’t it awesome? How do I feel, they want to know.
Well, for starters, bewildered by news beyond my imagining. And something darker I can’t name. I nod and smile, but I’m saving face. I want out. Dreamer and I head for our nightly commute to the place we live. As if sensing my angst, he gives me space.
Creche, sounds like crush
Dreamer falls asleep smiling. I lie awake, confused. Offended. Which makes me feel guilty and even more left out. I should be ecstatic. But after weeks of feeling dismissed and mistrusted, now I’m ashamed about my fury over the ruined creche.
I groan, place the cool side of the pillow over my face. I begin to understand Herod. Jealous for my private kingdom — and wanting adulation for what I built — I have blinded myself to the reason behind it all: Christmas. God with us.
In my mind’s eye, I kneel, grasp the imagined hem of his robe, picturing traditional Thai cloth in vivid colors. And somewhere in the background, the Buddhist who’d sewn it. For free. Simply because I’d asked.
Lord, forgive me.
And something like relief flows in, leaving my soul “sore amazed.” I begin to understand the shepherds.
Then, I taste Mary’s hushed bliss.
I am 50. I could be 100. I feel newly reborn, broken open by grace. By Story. By Christmas in Asia. Tenderly. Thoroughly. What a strange and wondrous world, where we can briefly take steps in the shoes of others.
All is adventure.
All is grace.
Friends, which character in the Christmas story resonates with you this year?
Poet Mary Oliver asks:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
You might also enjoy this Christmas post from the archives