International Ministries

(not quite) Home for Christmas

December 26, 2012 Journal
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It is not over yet, but we have already had a wonderful time as a family this Christmas.  We did not manage to get everyone together in one place.  That was the amazing blessing of Thanksgiving for us this year:  everyone together again for a few days--wow!  This week it has been our turn to share, as two of our three next-gen families were blessing the in-laws with their presence.  We were very grateful for the technology and the opportunity to talk with them on Christmas day.  And we were delighted to have the other next-gen family right here with us:  Anna, Tim, CJ (5) and Naomi (10 months).  For all of these blessings, thank you, Lord! 

I have been immersed in the enjoyment of this great gift this week.  But the mind is an amazing thing, able to be almost 100% present while still occasionally zipping off for a few moments in unexpected directions.  And then, even with a houseful, there are the times of solitude.  I've had more than the usual quota this year.  (Memo to self:  among the many ways to move through the time of preparation we call Advent, spending the last 2 weeks on the other side of the planet is not the most effective for clear-headedness on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The 12 time zone adjustment obeys its own biological imperative... bestowing, along the way, sleepiness when one wishes to be alert and alertness when one wishes to be sleeping like the others.)

So it is that I have found myself often engaged in prayer for Kachin Baptist brothers and sisters over these last few days, mostly in the middle of the night, but also from time to time throughout the day.

Some 100,000 of them have had more in common with Joseph, Mary and Jesus than with me, this Christmas.

Luke's Gospel tells us that as Jesus' birth drew near, Joseph and Mary were on the road, due to the requirements of the imperial census.   It was a very curious kind of "on the road," though.  The place Joseph actually took Mary, in order to register with the census-takers, was... home.  Since his family was originally from Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary made the trip south from Nazareth, so that Joseph could do his duty.

So, that first Christmas, Joseph, Mary & Jesus were in their ancestral homeland.  But, curiously, Luke tells us they were not in the ancestral home.  They were outside the main house.  With the animals. 

Luke doesn't give us the details.  We don't know if there was "no room" for them inside because the rest of the family reacted less nobly than Joseph to Mary's not-the-usual way condition.  Or maybe it was that Joseph's particular branch of the extended family had been away from Bethlehem so long that their arrival caught everyone unprepared (neglecting to text their ETA from the road was a filial failing that had not yet been invented!).  Perhaps the issue truly was just a matter of space:  perhaps the rest of the extended family had already occupied every nook and cranny of ancestral housing by the time Joseph and his precious cargo finally came straggling in.

Whatever the reason, Joseph and his little family spent that first Christmas both "at home" and very much not "at home."  (Matthew's Gospel adds that things quickly got worse for the little family:  they rapidly morphed from "internally displaced persons" to full-fledged "refugees" as they crossed the border into Egypt to protect the life of their infant son.  But that is a story for another time.)

There are something like 100,000 Kachin people, most of them Baptists, who spent Christmas of 2012 in a similar situation.  They are an ethnic minority people whose ancestral homeland includes Kachin State, a part of northern Myanmar (Burma) that borders China.  Like other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar (most famously, the Karen people), the Kachins have been struggling with the central government for decades.  Just as that government has begun to take significant steps to cultivate better relationships with the rest of the world (and especially, with the U.S.), it has cast aside a 1994 ceasefire agreement with Kachin independence forces and launched a major military operation into northern Kachin State.  The estimates are that military operations over the last 18 months have produced 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), living in camps along the border between China and Myanmar.

I am very far from being an expert on this conflict.  The complexities of the history and the dynamics that feed the current violence go beyond my understanding.  But it has been much on my mind and heart since the second week of Advent, when I discovered it was very much on the minds and hearts of my hosts and conversation partners in Myanmar.  The leader of the large and very dynamic Baptist movement throughout the country arose from our conversation in his Yangon office early in the week to travel to the northern border and visit the camps.  Later in the week, a long-time leader of the NGO community in Yangon urged me to look for ways that American Baptists could more effectively stand with our Kachin sisters and brothers.  And the last thing I did before boarding the plane to leave Myanmar was worship at Yangon Kachin Baptist Church.  There, our prayers for the suffering families of Newtown, CT, were mingled with our prayers for the suffering families of Kachin State.

They are in their ancestral homeland.  But, whether living as IDPs in border camps or as traumatized survivors in contested territory, they are anything but "at home" this Christmas.

I do not yet know all of what I, or International Ministries, will be led to do on behalf of our Kachin, Karen and other sisters and brothers in Christ who are home but not "at home" this Christmas.  (And those suffering in Syria?  And those who are still picking up the pieces of their shattered lives post-Sandy and post-Sandy Hook?  And those who are still displaced almost three years after the Haitian earthquake?  And...?  There is truly no shortage of disrupted lives in our world!)

So far, I've been praying.  I plan to continue that.  God loves the Kachins (and the Karen, and the Syrians, and the Americans and the Haitians and...) infinitely more than I do.  God's patient work in the world--the whole world--is the only framework that keeps me from falling into overwhelmed despair in the face of the needs we can see.  Praying is what puts me in perspective.  It reminds me where I fit in the big picture.  I certainly feel called to "do something."  But unless the first (and last!) thing I do is to pray, I will quickly lose perspective on how the tiny contribution I might make could be part of the much larger, much longer, much deeper work of God in history.  Without the bigger perspective, my too-puny efforts will simply become paralyzed.

Spending part of Advent in Myanmar has both reminded me of an element of the Christmas story, and added another dimension to my prayers that God's Reign will fully come and God's good and redeeming will be fully done, on earth, as in heaven.  I am grateful for the foretastes of that redemption I am privileged to witness and to experience, while I pray for--and play a small role in--God's work to bring about infinitely more.  May you, also, have the joy both of receiving and of extending to others the grace and love of God that is surely bearing us toward that "infinitely more."

Blessings,
Stan