It’s Thanksgiving, 1975, not our typical day with family because we now live in San Jose, Costa Rica. We moved four months ago and the time has passed ever so slowly, like the months before I got my first driver’s license. I feel I must nudge the hour hand of the clock to force it to cycle twice and signal another passed day. Language learning is the worse and most difficult task I have undertaken. My mouth wants to utter a lot of phrases but they are not in Spanish. Living in a foreign land forces me to make comparisons between what was and what is. The results are depressing. I hope this changes soon. Who ever wrote absence makes the heart grow fonder was a self-deluded romantic. Absence makes the heart grow resentful. I am more than a bit upset with God for calling us as missionaries to Colombia. What is He thinking? We can feel the despair of the present, but have no idea whether the future will get better.
Had our calling to serve not been so certain, I would have thrown in the towel and returned to the USA where they eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, where most people speak English, where people know the meaning of pilgrim, where Thanksgiving signals a hint of winter. Bah, Humbug, and it isn’t even Christmas eve.
When a husband and a wife fall into the same pit of discouragement at the same time, who will throw down a rope? This whole experience is a very slippery mountain that tests our faith, determination, and commitment. It wears down even our resistance to illness. I am just getting over a bout with pneumonia that stole 30 pounds from my plump body. Where is our family when we need them? The truth is they didn’t want us to leave in the first place, so we have to sleep in the bed we created for ourselves.
We are lying in bed after a turkey-less Thanksgiving and I say, “If you think this is bad, can you imagine a Christmas away from family and friends?” This is our first realization that Christmas will be lonely, very lonely. And, equally bad, we see or hear none of the normal Christmas signals of late November. The yeast of the season has lost its reason.
The temperature reads 85 instead of 30. No one peddles Christmas trees in the lot next to Kroger’s or Hy-Vee. Fisher Price toys for tots are non-existent except through the mail and then you can expect delays and taxation at the customs office. This year our extended family will be easy to visit because there are only three of us within a thousand mile radius, and we all live in the same house.
Of course, we will make new missionary family traditions, but that brings little solace when set side by side with what we will be missing. I realize for the first time that Christmas involves going to the attic for two kinds of Christmas boxes. Not only are we unable to pull out the tree bulbs, the stuffed Frosty and Santa (the one that somehow lost one arm years ago), the pine cone wreath that has long since lost a fragrance, and the angel topper. Neither can we dig through the boxes of experiences past with those people we love most.
Those laments resurfaced daily from Thanksgiving until December 16th, when we got the most unexpected phone call from our wonderful sending church friends—Dr. and Mrs. Anne Bourne from Camden, TN. They always serve as our sounding board for both the good and the bad, and always call when we need them most.
Anne starts the conversation, “How are things going for you?”
We reply, “We are hanging in here, but there isn’t a lot of joy in Mudville, even though it is nearly Christmas.”
Dr. Bob says, “We have a little present that we are sending your way that might help.” Visions of a “care package” immediately popped into my head—a fruitcake, a country ham, and some North American toys for David. “It is scheduled to arrive on December 22 at 6:30 p.m. But you will need to pick it up.”
I ask, “What do you mean?”
Anne continues, “You will need to go to the San Jose International Airport and wait in the baggage area until you see Bobby and Elizabeth. We are sending them to brighten your Christmas!” We are absolutely speechless. Elizabeth was our son’s #1 baby sitter during his first year of life and almost like a daughter to us. They were 13 and 15 and their parents are giving them up to spend their Christmas vacation with us.
Such love and sharing still rocks me. Of course it can’t compare to the God’s gift of Jesus, but it was a real “incarnational” gift that remains one of the most precious of my life. It definitely modeled in a concrete way the divine love of God by sending His son to dwell among those He loves. But in a human sense, the gift of two kids for Christmas “saved” us by transforming sadness to joy. That year, we sang “Joy to the World, some friends have come.”