By Susanna Aughtmon
It’s the middle of
summer on the cramped lamp-lit streets of the Red Light District in Amsterdam,
Netherlands. I’m new to the Shining Light ministry of Youth With a Mission as I
shadow my cousin, Alys, a staffer.
We whisper prayers
and grip baskets filled with butter cookies, thermoses of tea, emery boards,
and nail polish. Offering gifts from our baskets, we talk to girls who seem
impossibly young, yet have already lived a life’s worth of degradation. We
listen to their stories. If we find favor, they invite us to join them in their
windows where they sit waiting for their next customer.
With bold strokes
of pink and red, we hold their hands and talk about Jesus. You might wonder how
painting a prostitute’s nails could be Christmas, but it is. Despite the summer
heat, the complete lack of Christmas festivities, and surroundings that couldn’t
feel farther from the gospel, Alys and I are celebrating the nativity to a
degree we never did as children searching for gifts under a tree.
We are shining
Christ’s light into a dark place. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
The birth of hope
What is a real
Christmas? The first Christmas was wrapped in hardship. Joseph and Mary’s
circumstances were harsh. Mary shouldered the burden of having her baby far
from home. She and Joseph had just completed a difficult journey to register in
a tax census under an oppressive government.
birthing experience was probably accompanied by a host of unsavory smells,
animal sounds, and all the ambiance of a truck stop. Joseph had the task of
caring for her and the Baby when no one would take them in.
Alone, far from
family, stuck in a stinky barn, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Therein lies the
beauty our hope hinges upon. The beauty of Christmas is that God chose to put
on skin and step into the unsanitary, smelly mess of this world. Emmanuel, God
night, a sharp bright hope cracked the sky. Our salvation, the hope of all
ages, became a reality. That is real Christmas.
We can offer that
same hope-birthed Christmas to our imperfect world. It may be a bit messy, cold
or inconvenient. It may not look or smell like a holiday. But there are people
and places needing a bit of hope and light rained down upon them.
Christ-followers doing just that, sharing Jesus and Christmas in a tangible
way. Their methods are as individual as a winter snowflake.
A Christmas carol
On a crisp
December afternoon in Eugene, Ore., the gym at Willamette Christian Center
begins to fill. Couple by couple, family by family, folks make their way to the
bleachers. High school kids cluster in the corner, laughing. Excited children
lap the basketball court. The rehearsal starts.
The sound of
voices almost 200 strong, child and adult, high and low, echo as they practice
five carols. The group breaks into teams that grab boom boxes loaded with
accompaniment music and pile into cars. Within minutes, these carolers are
ringing doorbells and crowding into nursing home multipurpose rooms.
The quiet halls of
care facilities and the homes of shut-ins ring with song. Five songs proclaim
the Baby who came to change the world. Hand-signed Christmas cards are slipped
into frail hands along with a squeeze and a smile.
Regrouping at the
gym, nursing bowls of turkey soup and eating warm biscuits, families recount
their stories and the surprising joy found in offering up their voices, even
shaky ones, in Christmas song.
It’s not so much
about carrying a tune as it is about chasing away loneliness. They feel the
shift from the everyday to the eternal. Shining light into dark places. Real
The gift of
In a small house
on a tree-lined street, the families of Pathway Church, a fledgling church
plant focused on reaching Palo Alto, Calif., gather on a Sunday morning to talk
about Jesus and how they can follow Him better. They have each brought shiny
foil-wrapped presents to put under the church’s Christmas tree.
While the church
is only 20 strong, their small mountain of gifts waits for New Creation Home, a
facility for teenage mothers located in East Palo Alto. The community is a hard
place to grow up — a harder place to raise a baby.
But New Creation
Home offers a new life to these young moms, giving them a place to learn, grow
and soak up the love of Jesus.
excitement, the Pathway members load the gifts into a van and deliver them,
incognito, so the young women can enjoy the gifts with their little ones on
Christmas morning. Gifts of diapers and diaper wipes. Gifts of toys. There is
love and hope wrapped up in those gifts. Real Christmas.
Away in a manger
Washington, D.C., at Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, setup begins. There is the
sound system, the hospitality center, the area for the live animals. National
Community Church is prepping for its live nativity outreach.
In the midst of a
town known for scandal and power plays, NCC members are getting ready to tell
the most powerful story of all to their community. They have dropped fliers at
local schools and advertised in the Hill Rag, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
As strains of
Christmas carols cut through the biting air, people start to wander in.
Families. Staffers. Neighbors. Handed a copy of the Christmas story, visitors
stroll by the angel choir, shepherds, Wise Men, and baby animals.
At the end of the
path in the hospitality center, guests are greeted with steaming cups of cocoa
and the chance to mingle with NCC representatives. Like the shepherds who told
the story of the first Christmas, NCC’s families are spreading the word. Real
Creating a family
In San Francisco’s
Tenderloin, an area known for its homelessness and hopelessness, City Impact is
readying 500 volunteers for a neighborhood outreach. Workers are cooking food,
prepping bags of groceries, and assembling individual meals. These will be
delivered to hundreds of shut-ins in the apartment buildings surrounding the
people reside there, many elderly and without families. Others are living with
drug addiction or AIDS. Entire families live in one-bedroom apartments,
struggling to make ends meet. Forty-five of these families have been adopted
and churchgoers alike fill bags with nonperishables and presents. Along with
the gifts, they will be sharing the story of Christmas.
Last year, City
Impact adopted a family that had been hostile towards the ministry and the
message of Jesus. The father was diagnosed with brain cancer. The family was in
a desperate situation, living in a one-bedroom apartment.
members arrived bringing gifts, food and a tiny Christmas tree. After opening
presents and telling the story of how Jesus came to bring the gift of
salvation, the volunteers got ready to go.
Before leaving, a
team member asked the mother, Pamela, if there was anything in particular she
had hoped for this Christmas — a gift she hadn’t received. Pamela was
exhausted. She worked endlessly to provide what little she could for her
family. It had been a long time since she experienced any pampering.
“A fluffy robe,”
she replied, “a big, white, fluffy robe.”
At that, one of
her children announced, “Hey, there’s one more present to open.”
When Pamela opened
the box she found a pure white, fluffy robe.
Christmas is a song sung in the corridor of a nursing home, a box of diapers
for a newborn baby, or a cup of cocoa and the chance to hear the Baby’s story
one more time. Sometimes real Christmas is a white, fluffy robe.
But whenever and
wherever it is expressed, real Christmas is a miracle. The miracle of knowing
God is real.
He is here. He is
willing to step down from the heavens into the mess of broken lives. Real
Christmas is shining light in the darkest of places, pouring hope into the
hearts of a shattered world. Emmanuel. God with us.
is a freelance writer and an Assemblies of God church planter at Pathway Church
in Palo Alto, Calif., with her husband, Scott. She also blogs at
comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.