My husband and I, kids in tow, were maneuvering at a snail’s pace through a traffic jam in our trusty high-clearance minivan. Our speakers happily trumpeted the Christmas CD my mom had sent, and we chatted, our energy high for our Christmas shopping in the city and the Christmas party of our non-profit (which, with the barbecue and kids running around in shorts, tends to look a little more like the Fourth of July). It was sometime after “Let it Snow” that our heads all swiveled to the driver’s side, where a man was banging—hard—on the outside of our van. Never a good sign in Kampala.
And that’s when his partner whipped open my car door and swiftly grabbed my bag slouched at my feet. My casserole dish skidded across the pavement as I unbuckled without thinking, standing between the unmoving lanes and yelling something very helpful, like, “HEY!” as he and his cronies ran away with my reading device, my phone, the drivers’ licenses from both countries, and our house keys.
I make it sound lighthearted, typing to you over a week later. But really, I just started sobbing, my hands shaking–which probably frightened my children just as much as the stranger flinging open the car door.
And yet, as I type, I can feel sweat beading behind my ears, dampening the tendrils on my neck. Tropical birds are sharing some kind of stories with each other out my window. The strings of lights and clusters of Christmas knickknacks are nowhere except the tree when I walk from one set of flung-open doors to the other. Christmas in the developing world is markedly…simpler.
I like this. I do. And yet, part of me wistfully pines, in this land that probably hasn’t seen snow since the Ice Age, for the sparkling events and frost and Christmas TV specials and calories that my senses associate with Christmas.
I suppose it’s this contrast—of my sensory expectations against the eternal springtime of the equator, garnished with the few strands of tinsel strung up at some local stores—that matches up with other sad realities at the holidays, away from home. My family won’t be throwing our arms around the necks of extended family as we stamp off our boots. Most of our Christmas gifts are brought over in advance (we stuffed ours in suitcases back in May). As thrilled as I am to be in Africa year-round, I always find myself muscling through a bit of melancholy in December, brushing away a rogue tear or two while I blast Christmas music and roll out sugar cookie dough.
But Christmas brims with odd contrasts, right? It’s the beckoning, warm technicolor of light displays in frigid darkness; the cheery fires while we peer out at naked, frozen trees; the heartache of the empty spot at the table in the midst of bubbling conversation; God arriving on earth in a barn. Historically, too, there’s the replacement of a pagan festival of death, lust, and frightening destiny with a holiday celebrating life, sacrificial love, and freedom from slavery.
Here in Uganda, to say that the holidays lack a richness would be somewhat of a misnomer. I find it in gathering unattached friends to our celebrations like a ball of playdough. I find it in the very simplicity: that my housekeeper’s grandmother is delighted, for example, with the gifts of a chicken and a kilo of sugar. That rather than multicolored, cinnamon-scented, artfully-wrapped cues, I remember that Christmas is about Jesus. The contrast elevates my sense of true Christmas.
It’s strange, you know, this melee of contrasts. Sometimes I find myself not wanting to focus too much on God’s love at Christmas (I know, I know)—because I’m afraid I’ll lose the awe, the reverence of this God of whom the Hebrews would not even speak or write His name. I mean, what if I allow myself to get caught up in this engulfing, crazy form of love, and somehow that swallows up the sheer holiness of the God of the universe?
But Christmas, when I get down to it, is not a contrast of these at all. The immense, blinding brilliance—the above-ness of God–and the love are one and the same. This baby was God with us. The high and holy with the dirty and lowly. The King of the Universe in diapers, carried around by a young girl, and visited by hired hands. I am so holy, He seems to say, that I can’t help but love like this.
I glimpse a slice of this, I think, as a mother. My hugs and yummy food and cuddle time with my children are not of a separate part of me than my discipline, my careful guiding of them. They are both from the love that seeps out from my pores for them. My love punctuates the truths I tell them—and the truth punctuates the love.
My answer to myself is not to focus less on God’s love this Christmas; it is to understand the sweeping, tour-de-force nature of that love, which is never satisfied with leaving me stinking and bleeding. It required a baby whose sweet, tender skin would decades later ooze scarlet for me, a lamb who’d double as my Shepherd.
So yes—Christmas seems replete with contrasts, its dark and light shades tightly braided, its bitter cold and tantalizing warmth kneaded into the season and the story. And though the weather outside is, well, delightful here (and I wish it were a little more frightful), I have a lot to celebrate anyway.
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Really glad you're here. Welcome to a lingering conversation--about a head-turning, undeserved kindness that's turned my life on its head. This site's about Jesus in a pair of well-worn Levi's: faith walking around in our sneakers, scuffing up against real life and real people.
I hope you'll find some questions worth asking, conversations worth engaging, compassion that's compelling, and practical ideas to knead genuine love into relationships. (...With a side of slightly irreverent humor.)
After five and a half years in Uganda, my family and I have recently returned to the U.S., where we continue to work on behalf of the poor. I write and love on my family from Colorado.