John and Karen Bulbuk are evangelical missionaries to Romania, whom I met through friends when they were visiting the US several years ago. You can subscribe to their monthly e-newsletter by emailing Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org . I was touched by her Christmas message, which she’s given me permission to reprint below. Jan. 6 is the 12th day of Christmas, the feast of the Epiphany, so technically this is still timely!
The True Christmas Spirit
by Karen Bulbuk
For some, the Christmas season is a time when separation from loved ones or haunting memories cause loneliness and depression to settle on their spirits like thick morning fog on the seacoast. Others spend weeks in frenetic preparations – decorating homes to look like gingerbread cottages, throwing lavish parties, scouring stores for the “perfect” gifts for friends and family, and creating culinary masterpieces, – all to climax in a 24-hour marathon of gorging on seasonal delicacies and watching the kids rip open their long-anticipated presents. But when it’s all over, the food has been eaten, the presents have been used, broken, stuck in a closet or exchanged, and the decorations stowed away until next year, many of us are left feeling empty, exhausted and let down. We vow that next year it will be different – we’ll start earlier, and we’ll try harder to capture the real meaning of Christmas. However, what is that real meaning, anyway?
I will never forget the answer I received on my first venture into a third-world country on an outreach with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) many years ago. Warnings from well-meaning friends and relatives were still ringing in my ears – “Don’t eat the food! Don’t drink the water!” They didn’t need to worry. As we traversed dusty unpaved streets past dilapidated cardboard shacks amidst trash-strewn roadsides, I concluded that I didn’t even want to touch anything in this place, never mind put it in my mouth.
When we camped that first night, the two toilets provided for our convoy, of approximately 200 people, soon plugged up and overflowed. In the sticky humidity, gritty dust and dirt clung to everything. The spicy aroma of unfamiliar foods blended with the pungent odors of garbage and open sewers to assault my senses, and I recoiled. My sheltered, antiseptic culture had not prepared me to deal with the surroundings into which I suddenly found myself thrust.
I listened as two veteran missionaries from the U.S. addressed our group. “If you really want to be effective in ministering to people of a different country,” they exhorted us, “you must be willing not only to learn the language, but also to adopt the culture of the people and become one of them.” The very thought of living with the poverty and filth I observed around me filled me with horror. “Lord,” I whispered, “I don’t want to adopt THIS culture!” Even as I spoke, a flash of revelation pierced my thoughts and silenced my protest. In that moment, I understood what Christmas had meant to Jesus. God had looked upon the destruction and chaos in a world inhabited by sinful, broken and hurting people, and instead of withdrawing in disgust, He entered into it, spoke our language, adopted our culture and became one of us. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock Jesus must have faced, leaving the unfathomable beauty and glory of heaven where He had all power, authority and honor, to arrive on earth as a helpless, dependent baby in a filthy, stinking stable. As I considered what He had done, my discomfort in the present situation paled in comparison. He had loved us enough to come personally, expressing His love in a tangible way. His sacrifice had begun even at Christmas, long before its culmination on the Cross.
Now He sends us, as His Body, to go share His love in person with others. Wherever we go – whether to another country, in our own city or neighborhood, or sometimes even at home, – we come in contact with others who live in a different “culture” or speak a different “language” from us (i.e. teenagers and parents!) The natural human response is to judge the other culture as inferior to ours, and either withdraw and insulate ourselves in our comfort zone, or else try to “convert” the other person to our “superior” way of life.
But in Christmas, Jesus gave us a different model to follow. Long before He ever confronted sin and evil in our world and lives, He humbled Himself and literally “got into our skin” in order to understand firsthand our human experience. When the time came for Him to speak truth, He approached us not as a self-righteous, condemning legalist, but as a “High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” because He had experienced every temptation that we would ever face (Heb. 4:15). He calls us to imitate His example of humility and love by identifying with those to whom we minister. Since we are not perfect high priests as Jesus was, in the process we may discover truths we needed to learn! Then, if eventually we need to confront with truth, we will be able to do it in the posture of a servant, with the true spirit of Christmas.