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Christmastime is Here… and Gone Again

31 December 2008

It is nearly the end of the year, and I have made an abysmal showing this month on this here blog. I have had a heap of blog posts knocking about in my head, and I even started writing one of them. But then I received very sad news that a friend from college had passed away from cancer. Somehow, at that moment, all the navel-gazing that naturally comes with blog-writing seemed immoderate, and I needed a break from all the self-importance.

So I gave myself some time off and left for a little while, both mentally and physically, and spent time with family and friends for the holidays. I am back now and am going to start extracting those rattling blog posts from my head before they do any permanent damage. I would like to write a little about my friend, to celebrate her life, but I’m going to save that for later.

During my self-imposed exile, Christmas came and went. Drama stayed away this year for the most part, and we went through the season rather quietly. Yet, as I sat in church on Christmas Eve, I could not help but be hit by the jarring contrast to a year before.

On Christmas Eve 2007, Mike, my flatmate Mason, and I were sitting in a small Presbyterian church in Lusaka, Zambia. Rain pounded outside as rain is decidedly in season in Zambia in December. Both the youth choir and the “regular” choir had taken turns singing, continuing their weekly sing-offs.

Explanation tangent: These sing-offs began about two months before Christmas when some of the youth (actually, probably all of the youth since the church only really had 75 people in it) decided the church needed some more upbeat music in the services. Of course, even with the new youth choir, the pastor could not cut the original choir – their music was an integral part of this church. The original choir consisted of six older ladies dressed in pristine chitenge outfits wholeheartedly warbling out tunes last heard at a Louisiana tent revival, circa 1972. I still sing “My Bible and Me” in my head every time someone reads scripture in church. In contrast, the youth choir wore modern clothing – jeans, skirts, t-shirts, etc. – and sang upbeat praise songs often with Nyanja lyrics and dancing. Since the choirs usually sang one right after another for a couple rounds, it definitely came across as some kind of contest. “It’s a sing-off!” (If only David Bowie had been there to call that sucker…)

On CE07, the choirs finished singing, the church cat had taken its place just inside the door near the stage so that it could saunter across the front at the appropriate time to accentuate a finer point of the sermon, and the rain had slowed down to a pleasant pitter-patter from its previous deafening roar. Then the pastor stepped up to the pulpit and began to talk about Christmas.

I cannot say enough about our pastor at St. Columbas Church in Lusaka; he is a quiet, meek man who commands and gets your full attention when he preaches. It is surprising that the man who speaks up front with such passion is the same one who quietly greets you at the end of the service. His sermons grabbed my mind and refused to let me go until I had accepted the challenge to live better. As most churches in Lusaka seemed to tend toward the “health and wealth” message, it is unlikely that the congregation will ever grow much in this little Presbyterian church with the pastor who dares you to do something for God rather than ask Him to do something for you. Though I sincerely hope and pray that one day it will.

So when he talked about Christmas, I listened, and, for the first time in a long time, I actually heard. It was a simple message about how Christmas is a time for giving of ourselves to others as God gave us his Son. But it stuck. And not just for me – this year, Mike leaned over to me in church and remarked on what a difference one year makes and how he will never forget CE07.

This year it was not a bad sermon; in fact, it was a good message, one that should be preached. The pastor of the big Southern church we visited challenged us to have a more child-like trust in God. I tried very hard not to let the mega-church atmosphere (though, at a mere 2,000, does that qualify as mega-church anymore?) raise my hackles, and I honestly have to say that, in comparison to the church we went to a few years back where the special-music singer shared a self-written ditty that was little more than a thinly-veiled diatribe about how the church should hate the gays,  it was a great service that put us in the correct frame of mind for Christmas.

Yet, when I think back to that small Zambian church full of men and women who seemed so gloriously out of step with the “health and wealth” culture that surrounded them, I’m so glad I have this memory. And I know that I will never look at Christmas quite the same way ever again.

Chili earnestly wishes you a Merry Belated Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Chili earnestly wishes you a Merry Belated Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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