by Laurie Klein
You only get one life.
*CHRISTMAS, 2000: THAILAND*
I miss my armchair back home. Upholstered wings to enfold and console me. Safe adventures via good books.
No furniture beckons me here in the meeting room where our team debriefs with the Advocate.
It’s the day after the all-day birthday bash for Jesus. Shoeless, we sit on the floor, legs angled to one side, tender arches and soles turned toward the wall. It makes 50-year-old hip joints ache, but we farangs have learned that aiming a foot at another person gravely insults them. Thai culture deems human feet filthy.
As usual, dirt stains blotch my socks like islands of rust. My toes, lanced with a bolt of icy pain, cramp. Heat clogs my lungs, my breath stutters. Disease meets humidity.
But guilt outweighs all.
I am silently reliving last night’s fire-gone-rogue, trying to suppress the aftershocks: the Christmas play. And what followed. And my reaction.
To be sure, nobody’s shining hair or clothing went up in flames. No one suffered burns. The blaze petered out when the pyro-rascals led everyone closer to the stage. The play had begun.
And what an opening act! I stared. Everyone stared. Young Thais staggered and slurred, feigning drug highs, or drunkenness. Sham fights ensued. And was that a hooker?—crooking her finger, stage left?
I couldn’t watch. I sped to the Advocate’s kitchen, toed off my shoes near others piled by the door. I stood at the sink in my wretched socks, scrubbing dishes. Barefoot friends scraped plates and stored the leftover food.
A teammate entered and drew me aside, her face troubled.
“I think you should know the kids are dismantling—”
Oh no. The creche? My creche? I flung my dishtowel, ignored my waiting shoes, and tore outside.
I arrived to see my cherished birds tossed back and forth. Two kids paraded around in the holy family’s clothing. It looked torn.
I had no words.
Choked with hurt and fury, I had turned away.
Creche, sounds like crush
Now, the memory grinds to a close. Growing commotion wrenches me back to the meeting room. A woman from the village has arrived, gesturing, jabbering.
The Advocate’s eyes widen. Then she translates. The woman wants to pray. To our God. She wants us, the farangs, to come to her house and explain all this to her husband.
The team bursts into applause. Then 100 questions. The sole car in the village, the Advocate’s station wagon, can hold nine people.
“Who wants to come?” she asks.
I just want to go home. Instead, I’m stranded here among jubilant friends, unable to shag a ride to the place where I sleep. Call me the prodigal’s elder brother, but I want no part in the celebration.
Nor do I want to examine my failures.
The team returns, all talking at once. When they had arrived at the woman’s home, villagers crammed her front room, wall-to-wall. They bubbled over with questions about Jesus. EYC’s play must have presented the gospel, after all. While I sulked at the sink. The Advocate had retold the Story, then led them in prayer.
Each person there had given their life to Jesus.
Now, my teammates turn toward me, the one put in charge of the program. Isn’t it awesome? How do I feel, they want to know.
I begin to understand the shepherds: bedazzled, bewildered by news beyond imagining. I nod and smile, make the right noises, then slink off to the car for my ride home.
And I lie awake, offended. Confused. Which makes me feel even more left out. I should be ecstatic. But over four weeks of Advent tainted by personal failure, I had felt dismissed. Over and over.
And last night, I’d felt downright murderous when the creche—my small, private kingdom—fell into ruins, ransacked.
I groan, place the cool side of the pillow over my face. I begin to understand Herod.
Yes, Herod. I have adored my creation more than my savior.
Oh, how little I know him. Oh, this daredevil, venturous faith! How perilous. How wondrous.
I kneel to grasp the imagined hem of his garment. It appears fleetingly, in my mind’s eye: traditional Thai cloth in vivid colors. And somewhere in the background, the woman who sewed it. Sacrificially. Because I asked.
Savior, Messiah, forgive me.
And something flows in, leaving my soul sore amazed. I begin to understand the shepherds.
Then, I taste Mary’s hushed bliss. And Lucy’s awe, abreast Narnia’s easternmost sea, the serene waters mantled for miles in white lilies.
“There rose a smell which Lucy found it very hard to describe; sweet—yes, but not at all sleepy or overpowering, a fresh, wild, lonely smell that seemed to get into your brain and make you feel that you could go up mountains at a run or wrestle with an elephant.
“I feel that I can’t stand much more of this,” she whispered, “yet I don’t want it to stop.”
I am 50. I am 100. I am new-born. Broken open by Story. Tenderly. Thoroughly. What a strange world, that we can take brief steps in the shoes of others. All is adventure. Wonder.
All is grace.
FRIENDS, FRIENDS . . . YOU ONLY GET ONE LIFE
THOSE WHO INTERPRET DREAMS TELL US each character reflects an aspect of ourselves. Each character walks in different shoes. Or socks. Finding commonalities with the cast of the Christmas story brings alive new recognitions within memories—in startling, healing, and fruitful ways.
Poet Mary Oliver asks:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
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