Saturday, December 14, 2013

It’s Day 70 since Erica disappeared from our home that October Saturday morning and getting ready for Christmas just isn’t the same without her here with us.
The outdoor lights are up - she always wants lots of lights!  A candle burns in the window, literally and spiritually,
a hopeful beacon to guide her home.  Our tree is up too - it’s gold + green this year: symbolic of what is pure, refined, precious, and filled with promises of hope + life. Our grandkids, Anya, Zander + Judah, hung the last few ornaments and crowned it with an angel whose electric wings fan the Spirit throughout the room! 
And if you bend your ear close enough, you can hear many voices singing with her; ‘myriads of myriads, ten thousands of ten thousands and more thousands’: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all men!’
And my heart cries for peace this Christmas, for the Prince of Peace to rise from His pillow in our boat, speak to the winds + waves and calm our earth’s stormy waters. There’s such great need for peace + healing in our world today: so much pain, so many tossed about on life’s troubled seas, at the mercy of seemingly merciless tragedy.
Millions of refugees flee this world’s wars; countless believers suffer persecutions; others are entrapped in bondage, human trafficking and slavery.  And our home just feels empty without Erica: our Mom + Grandma + my wife.
Will we ever make it to the other side of these troubled waters, this mystery, that still-shrouded, distant shore of revelation + resolution? I’m sure the disciples had similar questionings during their boat-ride with Jesus.
They had just witnessed an amazing miracle: He’d fed more than five thousand with only 5 loaves + 2 fish,
but then Jesus changed scenes and invited them into a boat with a simple ‘Let’s cross over  to the other side.’
‘The other side’, outside their comfort zone, on to the next glory, to celebration … through the storm. 
And as they finally did, I am confident we also will reach ‘the other side’. Not only to arrive at that seemingly still far-off goal, but a greater revelation of who Jesus is, His purpose, who we are in Him and who He is through us.
We will know Him even as we are known.
But for now I wait, and hearken back to a Christmas just a few years past when God broke us out of our comfort zone and invited us on His journey to break open new horizons: not quite feeding five thousand, but still a multitude.
Erica had tired of our traditional Canadian Christmas celebrations centred round just our own family. We’d always reached out to others in our community: invited those who had no family to join us for Christmas dinner, adopted + cared for families experiencing hard times, ministered to the poor on Skid Row and the downtown East Side.
 Many times we’d filled our church Need-Meeter van with food + presents and spent Christmas mornings handing out coffee and turkey sandwiches to homeless street people… and sought to lead our children by example.
But Erica’s heart hungered for more and so she prayed God and urged me to come up with something different for that Christmas and move us to ‘the other side’.
My mom had passed away earlier that year, so we no longer sensed the need to stay home for Christmas with our immediate families. Indeed, Michael + Kelsey were off to Mexico with her family, while Ryan, Sophia + Anya were going to Brazil with his. Even our own children were not going to be home, so the time seemed right.
Why not Christmas in Africa? with Uganda Jesus Village, an orphanage of  63 victims of war, famine and disease?
Erica + I had been there two years before, leading a month-long school and had come to know and love this group: some had even been child soldiers in in Joseph Kony’s LRA army, but we had taught them that ‘in Christ’ they were no longer rejected orphans; they were now accepted, beloved sons and daughters. So Erica’s heart desire to spend Christmas with these less fortunate began to take shape.
Instead of looking for presents under our tree, we would instead take some to those who had none.
And the plan came together. Flights were confirmed, the money came in, tickets were purchased and Erica went on a shopping spree. The MCC, a local thrift store, became her regular stop as she made her list and checked it more than twice;  it kept growing and growing and our suitcases filled to overflowing! British Airways graciously allowed us more luggage for charity purposes, so between us, we had 6 extra bags to fill with all manner of goods not readily available in Uganda. Erica prepared for months, gathering:
Clothing -she matched sizes for each from oldest to the youngest, Kevan, a little 6-year old girl suffering with AIDS.
And school supplies - crayons, pens, pencils, note-paper, books.
And food - snacks, treats, goodies that these children would have never otherwise seen.
And lots of love.
December got hectic with ministry and the unexpected. I’d just returned from 2 weeks’ teaching in Vietnam; then our house weathered a demon-rat attack and our downstairs needed restoration; plus a friend + I were leaving for Finland to lead a 10 days’ Father’s Heart seminar. Amy too had spent the previous August with the UJV kids and longed to return, so the plan was for her + Erica to meet me in England and we would continue on to Uganda together. Amazingly, our plans unfolded accordingly on schedule!
We arrived in Uganda a week before Christmas and Erica went to work to see her dream fulfilled.
We moved into Maria Prean’s Guest-House, a virtual oasis of peace in the heart of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and our suitcases became veritable cornucopias of blessing. God multiplied what we had brought, for there always seemed to be ‘more’ of  just the right things for the right people.
Unfortunately, most of the UJV kids were going to their Ocholi home in the north to Gulu for holidays, and although that discouraged Erica temporarily, she soon found others that needed what she had, and not just from her suitcases. She had made room for many in her heart.
Celebrating Christmas properly had to include a dinner of course, and if those originally invited weren’t able to come,  so like the Matthew 22 parable, invitations now went out to all who had no place, no food, no family, no one to celebrate Christ’s birth with. The guest list kept growing as we heard of more and more with no place to go.
So once again Erica went shopping: with Amy + Kira and the UJV mamas, for all the necessities of a true feast.  And then 2 days of cooking. Uganda doesn’t have many turkeys, but chicken is always a suitable substitute.
They made multiple visits to the market for what our suitcases hadn’t carried. Cooking itself became quite the test: one charcoal burner couldn’t sufficiently cook enough food, even a day ahead of time, so we hired a cook. He moved the operation inside when the rains came and that’s how Kira’s kitchen ended up covered in ashen cinders!
And finally it was Christmas morning! Time for church + we headed off through a thunder + lightning downpour! The deluge turned dusty roads into slippery mudslides, as deceptive as any icy Canadian road and our van slid between the ditches on either side. Pastor Gerald preached his heart out, one little guy kept stealing Baby Jesus out of the Nativity play, but it all worked out for good.
And the Christmas story unfolded once again into reality.
We returned home and in true Ugandan fashion, the power went out just before the guests started arriving.
But that couldn’t stop a virtual international Nativity scene from taking shape: we didn’t have any shepherds,
but about 25 crowded the dining hall: UJV staff,  Mama Rose’s children, Remi’s 2 boys, Teacher Mike, Lorna, Peter, Memory + 3 girls from the slums’ Father’s Heart choir, Stuart, Kira + their newborn Kaehler played our Holy Family, their Australian friend, and  2 Austro-German ladies, visitors in the Guest House. They didn’t want to intrude but, ‘No problem!’ Erica countered, ‘There’s room for you too!’ + they not only came, but even offered to buy the sodas for everyone! The multiplication was happening: all one BIG happy family!  We couldn’t fit everyone into Stuart + Kira’s house, so Ann the Kenyan caretaker opened up the Guest-House dining room and joined us too!
It was a truly Biblical banquet:  the poor, fatherless, and widowed, those who were alone, without families, those were the ones Erica had always wanted for Christmas, and she got her wish.
The chicken was a bit tough, the matoke a little bland to our Canadian taste, but there was beef, rice, potatoes, yams, and it was all good + there was more than enough, and whoever wanted  went back for thirds. And not just for food, but warmth, love and Jesus showed up in our midst! 
Then time for presents! We may not have had 3 rich wise-men with their loaded camels, but I’m sure Erica’s suitcases disgorged more than they were naturally capable of carryings: a fire truck for one of Remi’s sons; a pink Bible case for Lorna that Amy had ironically bought at an Abbotsford UJV fundraiser years before. It fit her Bible perfectly + she loved it! Erica had packed miraculously:  just the right presents for each one! She’d even found some embroidered towels for the German ladies! And as Ann, the caretaker guest in her own Guest-House, opened hers, tears started flowing down her cheeks, and she confided this was the first Christmas present she’d ever received!
And that made it all worthwhile!
Night began to fall, and it falls quickly along the Equator, so we moved our party outdoors into the garden to take photos to remember it all. Then Memory picked up his guitar and everyone joined in singing, worshiping and dancing to Africanized Christmas carols. ‘Jingle Bells’ never quite sounded like that before!
Then Erica requested ‘Silent Night’, first in English and, so our lady-guests would feel at home, in German. Strains of ’Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ cut through the African darkness and more tears streamed down the Austrians’ eyes. Tears of emptiness, loneliness and sorrow: all turned to joy as our African Christmas bore its fruit.
Finally, time to head home and all our guests piled into one pickup and it too was filled to overflowing! We were left to clean up floors, tables + dishes, but that was a small price for such a great blessing we’d all experienced. 
Christmas’ true meaning had been rediscovered and we all went to sleep filled and fulfilled, happy to have been part of this ongoing miracle of Christ’s birth where He is born again in hearts that have made room for Him.
And so, this Christmas, barring an expected miracle, there will be an empty seat at our dinner table. But I choose to look to + remember the many chairs and hearts Erica filled at times like that Christmas  in UJV, and in this way pointed to and led us to experience ‘the other side’, to Christ, the true meaning of Christmas and beyond.
Thank you so much for your prayers, love + support + we pray the Lord’s blessing on you + your families throughout this New Year. We still hope to have more good news soon. Our love in Jesus, Henry, Erica + family

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