By Nell Green
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will among people. (Luke 2:14, NRSV)
Our first Christmas on the field was in 1986. From then on, every year we host at least one and sometimes several holiday gatherings. This year was possibly our best one ever. I almost called it off. A variety of unforeseen circumstances had me completely exhausted. I just didn’t think I could handle it. Something told me (or rather Someone told me) to go ahead with our plans. I did not cook everything as I normally would. With tinges of guilt, I ordered several party trays. At 6:30 that evening the doorbell began to ring and we watched God at work for the rest of evening.
Participating in our gathering were seven different nationalities. We were Muslim, Hindu, Cao Dei and Christian. Some of our Muslim friends were Shia and some were Sunni. There was halal food, vegetarian food and traditional Christmas goodies like my jam thumbprint cookies. A few of our friends knew each other. For the most part however, they were strangers to each other. They introduced themselves and then they began visiting.
For the next few hours we watched as they all engaged one another, talking about their life journeys, where they are now and what they are doing. Children decorated ornaments and hung some on our tree taking others home with them. We watched as one of our Iranian friends and one of our Iraqi friends spent the better part of the evening conversing and exchanging ideas. Representing countries that have a history of war with each other and have different ideas about Islam, they each told us as they were leaving how much they had enjoyed the other one. Our Vietnamese friend told us, “This place is magical!”
We had to interrupt the fun so we could play our party games and read the Christmas story. Yes, we read the Christmas story. We do every year. When the program was finished, no one left! They all stayed and visited longer. Two of our Hindu student friends had to go back to school, but their wives stayed on, not wanting to leave. The children responded to parents saying they were not ready to go. So we visited some more and had a marvelous time getting to know each other better.
This Christmas we will return to Senegal where we served for quite a few years. We will be with our Muslim and our Christian friends. One of our Muslim friends considers himself “big brother” to our children. He put the angel on top of our Christmas tree on more than one occasion while our children were growing up. Celebrating this holiday reminding us of God’s love made flesh with our friends of other cultures, faiths and nationalities has been one of God’s richest blessings to us over the years. Likewise we have celebrated innumerable ethnic and religious holidays with our International friends from Nowruz to Eid. We have been equally blessed as we have learned, laughed, loved and experienced life with them.
Engaging with our International neighbor requires respect. All of humanity no matter their faith background is worthy of respect. We are all made in the image of God. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Cao Dei, Christian — it doesn’t matter. Yet as Christians I believe we are called to take a step well beyond respect. We are called to love and to love in sincerity. It does not matter if the person comes from a country practicing Sharia law. It does not matter if the person comes from a country that cannot seem to get its economic system in order. It does not matter if the person comes from a country that is forcing people to flee in order to save their lives. It does not matter if the person comes from a country that we think may be trying to kill us. It does not matter if we come from a country that wants to ban others entry because they are afraid. Jesus was pretty clear about loving our enemies.
One of our favorite quotes is from Brother Andrew of Open Doors Ministries. “There will be no change in our work and the confrontation with Islam until we as believers in Jesus Christ learn to spell Islam as:
I — I
S — sincerely
L — love
A — all
M — Muslims
The message of Advent is that God came in a sacrificial demonstration of his love for all of humanity. Jesus taught, preached and lived out that love. Whatever political position we may take on the current state of world and U.S. affairs, whatever political candidate we may or may not endorse, as believers God has given us an opportunity to show the world that because Jesus came, we love. We love openly, honestly and sincerely. God in the highest heaven is glorified when we do and, who knows, it might just bring peace on earth and good will among people.