Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas gifts, tangible and not

I'm setting this post to appear in the middle of the week like I did last time. There won't be an email reminder, but hopefully you'll see it on facebook and click the link. I feel like no matter how many words I type, no matter how many hours I spend in front of a screen, I'll never be fully able to explain what it's like to be here. There are too many moments when we're laughing so hard we forget what was funny in the first place, or we're so exhausted we don't even have the strength to change clothes before we climb into our sleeping bags. I wish I had the time to write out every moment and post it on here to remember forever, but that's not the way life works I suppose. I do my best and hope that the other memories won't fade too quickly.

Last Christmas was definitely one I'll never forget. I knew it would be hard to be away from home, but I didn't expect that it could be so beautiful as well. I found myself keeping track of what time certain events were taking place in Korea - the candlelight service at Jubilee should be starting now, JM should be handing out presents to the kids, the huge English service is in an hour. It's funny how I missed a Christmas I'd only had once almost as much as the one I've experienced all my life. I wonder who bought Min-Ho's present this year.

On Friday, our team led a Christmas celebration near the camp. We were expecting the program to be in the camp and to have three hundred people attending, but we ended up smashed into a tiny room in a pastor's house with a mix of people from all over the community. I'm learning to hold plans with open hands here; nothing is the way you thought it would be, and that's okay.

When we began, everyone was politely seated around the room, but moments later we were flooded by dusty children from the camp. Seeing them side-by-side with the freshly bathed kids from other parts of the community made them look even more colorless than ever. It hurt my heart but at the same time I rejoiced that they had come. The program was partly in Hindi (translated to English for us) and partly in English (translated to Hindi for everyone else). They sang a few worship songs in each language, and the kids climbed on us as if there were some kind of silent competition to touch the ceiling first. One of the women on our team gave a message about the meaning of Christmas, then the rest of us put on a little play about the birth of Jesus. Last year, I was in two different Christmas plays, and I guess they were practice for my huge role this year as Mary. Everyone in the room laughed when I turned around with a shawl shoved inside my punjabi; apparently I'm going to be the most hilarious pregnant women the world has ever seen. My shawl later became the newborn baby Jesus, which drew an equal roar of laughter from the audience. At least I can be certain everyone was entertained.

Christmas Eve, we separated into three groups and wandered the village singing Christmas carols. The first few houses we visited, we knocked to introduce ourselves before we started singing, but that tradition quickly faded. We found it far more entertaining to stand outside a house and sing as loudly as we could until someone took notice and came down to say hello. After our songs, we explained (through our faithful translator) the meaning of Christmas and why we were celebrating. We left some simple gifts with the children and headed to the next house. Our last stop was a sweet little day care in our village. I still had my nail polish in my bag, and the contrast between the responses was unbelievable. In the camp, the second I reach into my bag, I hear incessant "ma'am!"s rising up all around me, and the children literally smack each other to be the first to get painted. The children in the day care, however, were hesitant and shy; it wasn't until a few brave ones showed off their painted nails that the rest would come anywhere near us. By the time we left, they were displaying their splatters of color as if they had the most expensive manicures. It was precious.

Christmas morning certainly didn't feel like Christmas. We headed to the church we've been leading; it was the fullest I've seen the English service since we arrived. Our team gave testimonies, sang Christmas songs, and gave a message about the meaning of Christmas before heading to the village for lunch. We returned to the base and dispersed, reading, napping, praying, until the classroom was ready for our celebration.

We began our Christmas party by praying for this nation. We wrote Christmas cards to the people here and prayed that one day people would know the God who sent His son as a baby to show His love for us. It was quiet, reverent, and sweet, and I'm thankful we started our celebration focusing on something outside of ourselves.

After a delicious dinner, we returned to the classroom to open our presents from each other. Instead of buying cheap souvenirs for every other person on our sixteen-person team, we were instructed to give "intangibles" - gifts written out on slips of paper that represent what we would give to each other if we had no limits, financially or logistically. We read them all one by one, laughing at some and crying at others. Some of my favorites that were given to me include:
- a gift card for one free Indian child
- a classroom that folds up in my pocket that I can use to teach any child, anywhere
- unlimited hugs and hand-holding with a person (I'm hoping she meant a guy) who wants to hold hands with only me
- freedom for North Korea
- Brian (everyone here loves him as much as everyone at home)
- a puppy that never grows up
- the ability to always make kids listen to what I'm trying to teach
- a few schools in North Korea (that was a popular one for me... my friends know me well!)
- a library with endless books
- a lightsaber
Although I don't physically have any of those things, I love the fact that my friends know me well enough to give me gifts that make my heart so happy. And writing the intangibles for my friends was the most fun I've ever had Christmas shopping - no price limits, no pesky "does this actually exist?" getting in the way. I gave one friend the ability to feel rested by eating cookies, another unexpiring visas to every country, and another a Bible that transports you to whatever story you're reading. I've never been so excited to give people presents, presents that I had thought of specifically for them that I knew were exactly what they wanted. It beats the crap out of wondering whether they already had the movie I bought or if the sweater I picked would be insultingly large. Plus, it was all free! Please don't call me cheap if I start including intangibles in birthday cards; I'm a little obsessed with the idea of giving imagination as a gift.

After we finished sharing our gifts with each other, the leaders pulled out surprise gifts from our families. The room got silent as we unwrapped our presents, thinking about how we could have been at home with our families this year, but God had different plans. I got cards from my parents, sisters, and dogs, and a picture drawn by my precious nephew. I also got a ton of candy and games that I can play with the kids in the camp, and a bracelet that I tied around my ankle to remind me of home. It was sad and strange not being able to skype with my family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day like I did last year, but it's wonderful knowing I'll get to see them in March instead of being nine months away from coming home.

I hope your celebration of Christmas was as beautiful as mine. Sure, December 25th may not actually be Christ's birthday, and maybe a lot of our traditions have been adapted from ancient pagan celebrations. But Christmas isn't about long lines at Wal-Mart or unending credit card debt; it's about remembering the day that God invaded earth and invited the people He so desperately loves to know Him personally, and that truth is the same no matter what country you celebrate in.

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