Christmas Can Bring Us Together
December 27, 2016
by Andy Littleton
Christmas was very different for our family this year. My wife had to work at the hospital all day, so we put off all typical Christmas festivities until the evening. My daughter immediately asked what we we were going to do. I had a great idea. “Let’s go to Waffle House!” Everyone there was all smiles. We sat at the bar. The waffles and (smothered/covered/and chunked) hashbrowns were delicious. We sipped hot chocolate and coffee. It was 9am. Then I had another idea. Our refugee friends were having their church service, and we’d never made it over to visit them. We had our service Christmas Eve, so it was perfect.
We’ve known the people of Goshen Church for some time. Years ago when I was a youth leader here in Tucson, I was able to help gather some families to adopt and serve a refugee family from Burundi as they entered into the United States. Through that experience a relationship began with a young refugee pastor (my age) named Bigimba. I introduced him lattes, deep dish pizza, and explained what I could about the way people do things in America. He taught me about his experience as a young man who fled the genocide around him, lived in a crowded refugee camp, and learned to trust in God amidst situations that I still cannot imagine. A few of us began to spend more time with him and his church, taking them meals to share after our respective church services. My little daughter Abby always got to come along. We never though, made it to one of their services.
The service was wonderful. So different from ours. It was about twice as long, with much more dancing and much louder praying and speaking (not just preaching…even announcements were given with gusto). Abby was full of questions, even during the service. Our friend Barbara would help answer. “They are moving the singers up onto the stage”, she told us, “to make room for people to dance.” Abby and I struggled to clap on beat. At one point, Bigimba’s mother, an elderly woman beautifully arrayed in a bright colorful and flowing dress, began to dance in front of the church and pray. She came over, took my hand and silently invited me to dance with her and look into her eyes. Those eyes, that had lived through pain unimaginable, yet were filled with so much peace. Then she took Abby by the hand and whisked her out in front of the church to dance. And at that moment I felt an unexpected, and rather surprising swell of emotion. It was beautiful.
Swells of emotion are in short supply for me. So when I feel them, I always wonder (usually immediately) what it’s all about. Instantly I knew. Growing up, my parents would slip and say things that were quite prejudice. I remember them apologizing immediately. I remember my mother telling me she’d heard such things all of her life, and that every once and awhile one just slipped out, though she was ashamed. What that means…is that our family is racist. We are those who have that “implicit bias”, and though I would love to say I have shaken it off…the truth is that I was raised under it effect. It’s in me.
I’m thankful to say that it’s intensity is diminishing. I remember being on my middle school playground, at a private Christian school, and the only black kid being mocked by another student. It made me angry. It didn’t feel right. I am so glad I felt that way. I wish I’d done more about it. I’m grateful that my Spanish teacher took our some kids from our class into the lean-to of a family just across the border around Christmas. We took a couple gifts that we wished we would get, and gave them to them, and then sat around the little fire on their dirt floor and practiced our Spanish by asking them questions about their lives. I learned that the kid I sat next to was very similar to me. We even both liked to play pogs. I’m glad that in middle school I got introduced to rap, because it eventually led me to appreciate hip hop culture, and choose a diverse friend group in high school that centered around music and dance. But I wish that more adults, even my parents, had walked me across racial and cultural boundaries and processed them with me.
When the elderly African woman took Abby’s hand and lead her into the dance, it hit me. Here we were, Abby was taking it all in, she was asking me questions and I was able to answer or point her to those who could. But, not only that, she was taken by the hand and lead into the midst of African cultural experience, by the family matriarch herself. Abby has a good shot at being much less biased and much more appreciative of other races and cultures, than any generation of our family ever has. That is a beautiful thing.
And what is it that brought us together? What is it, that made this moment possible?
It was Christmas because…when the God who created all the diverse people of the earth, entered into his creation as a bearer of flesh and blood, he came bringing news that both offends and affirms every culture of the world. It offends, because it calls no culture “good” or “innocent”. When that baby grew up and walked the earth neither his own native Jews, the occupying Romans in power, the mixed-race Samaritans were left un-examined and un-convicted of their falling short of the glory of God.
Yet, none of them, and none of the myriad of cultures his disciples would carry his news out to, found in Jesus one who was biased against them and wanted them out. On the contrary, the great disciple Peter would be stopped of his grounds for racial bias when God granted a supernatural display of his Spirit’s presence within a Roman Centurion. And Peter exclaimed…
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
(Acts 10:34 ESV)
Peter then went on to tell them good news of peace through Jesus.
“He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
(Acts 10:38b-43 ESV)
The pastor at Goshen clearly loved the culture of his African brothers and sisters. It was celebrated and embraced…yet it was not left unexamined. There were calls for people to repent of several things going on in their midst, that were not reflective of the glory of God. That’s how they are able to accept someone like me. My culture and assumptions are laid bare before God. No-one knows my racial bias as well as God. Neither does anyone know the myriads of other ways in which I fall short, and sometimes dive right in to the rebellious thoughts, words, and deeds I do. Both of our cultures are broken. We are laid bare before an all-seeing God.
But laid bare, we best encounter the Christ of Christmas. The Christ, who in the words of Simeon (as we at Mission Church heard on Christmas Eve) said…
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
(Luke 2:29-32 ESV)
In Christ we see our salvation. Which means that we can, at the very same time, hear hard truths about the sinfulness in the depths of our hearts, yet find that at that very moment we are being given the most glorious gift. The gift is the love of God incarnate. The gift is the holiness of God made flesh. The gift is a salvation sacrifice “prepared in the presence of all peoples”. In Jesus Christ, all people of all places, tribes, and tongues…behold a sacrificial savior. A God who suffers to save those who are biased against him. A God who suffers to save those who spit upon him, and turned him over to death. A God, who’s sacrifice can change even the darkest heart.
Pastor Felix at Goshen cried out “If you’re looking for joy, look to Bethlehem! Look to Jesus! Worship Him!” He knows that hearts changed by a God who has died for their sins…for even the deep-rooted, inherited biases of the heart…find a joy that surpasses all explanation. A joy that runs deep. A joy that cannot be shaken by genocide, loss, old age, and change. The kind of joy that makes the elderly African woman dance before her savior, and grab the hand of a little blond American girl, and whisk her away to dance with her. A joy that can replace deep rooted sins with a renewed capacity to love one another.