Last night I spoke to a middle school youth group. The kids were completely silent, focused on what I was saying. Believe me, it's not my great skill with kids - I know much better than that. I just have an interesting story to tell. And I don't mean that in a good way.
You have to understand that I already had a lot of interesting stories. I have already been through difficult times over and over again in Haiti. Here's what I sent out as our Christmas letter in 2007 (edited to leave out names because I'm still fooling myself on this whole anonymity thing):
We were going to a party. We were supposed to be celebrating Christmas, singing Christmas carols around the piano, eating soup and bread and delicious desserts. We had a parcel of warm bread in the back seat between the children. At the end of a week of work, we were ready to be festive.
Instead, though, of the idyllic scene we'd pictured at the beginning of our journey, we were sitting by the side of the road with steam pouring out from under our hood. Cars and trucks barreled past in both directions, oblivious to our problem. It was already dark.
We'd just have to sit there and let the radiator cool down. We didn't have any water to speed up the process. So we sat.
After a while a man walked by on our right and I greeted him. He inquired about the state of our health. I asked if he had any water. He asked if we were willing to buy some and we said we were. He came back in a few minutes with much less than half a bucket and we paid him about a dollar. My husband poured it into the radiator but it didn't make enough of a difference to set us on our way.
We sat some more.
The children were a little upset; S said that he was sad we were never going to make it to the party. I tried to be cheerful and called it an adventure. We recently read The Silver Chair together, so we talked for a few minutes about Puddleglum's views on the subject - "We'll all end up knifing one another, I shouldn't wonder - that's what happens on adventures." We looked at the sky, completely clear and filled with an infinity of stars, visible in the gaps between the roaring vehicles passing.
"Well, Z," I said, "Every missionary kid has to have some breakdown stories."
She could see that, but remarked that she already had enough of those. We reminisced a little about breakdowns we had known. Some of them had been in this very car. She was right - we had enough of those stories already.
After a while a woman pulled up. She said she saw we had children in the car, and she saw we weren't in our own country. Could she help us? She went and brought us a decent amount of water, and then the two guys with her helped push the car backwards to start it. She refused to accept any payment, even for the water. No, no, no, she had been happy to do it.
We drove away, feeling cheered, and made it to our party without further adventure and without anyone getting knifed.
Everyone needs some stories, but don't we all have enough already? And aren't we tired, as another Christmas comes, of dealing with the same breakdowns we've already gone through again and again? "Everything happens for a reason," people say, and no doubt they're right, but there are days when we just want to know the reason already. Lord, if there's something I'm supposed to be learning here, could we just get it over with so we can go to the party?
I don't know why things are so hard sometimes, but as we sat there on that mountain road and looked at the stars, and as we added yet another breakdown story to our and our children's repertoire, and experienced once again the grace of a Haitian person full of unexpected kindness, I thought about Christmas. It comes every year in the middle of our work and worry, into our unpredictable and often unwanted adventures. It reminds us of how Christ entered our world, entered the mess and repetitiveness of our existence, entered our lives. It reminds us of how He makes our stories have meaning, of how He sends us help in our breakdowns, of whatever variety. He is the Reason for the Season, we say, but more than that, He's the reason for all of it, the reason we keep getting up in the morning and going back to that classroom or that computer or that sick child or whatever we have to face that day.
This year is ending, with its stories, and another one is coming. Many of the stories this year have been sad, but many have been happy, as well. No doubt the same will be true for 2008. We wish you a wonderful new year with plenty of festivity and with the strength you need to meet each day. And all the new stories.
"Things are so hard" sounds like a joke now, and every challenge we have ever faced seems trivial, but I am trying to hold on to what I said here - how Jesus gives our stories meaning. Maybe some day I will see some meaning in all of this.