Down on the House Top

I suppose I am now a handy person, although in the old days I would have described myself as a handy MAN. I will not admit that there is anything that I cannot do if I have the proper tools. Of course, stuff that has to be done right, like wallpaper, was for Margaret; but rough jobs, such as plumbing, electrical wiring and carpentry, were for me.
I was not always so skillful. The first time my wife decided our roof needed to be reshingled, I happily agreed to call someone to do it. However, being a very smart woman, Margaret would never let me near the check book, and she declared that we could not afford a professional roofer. Thus, if I did not have the time, she said she would do the job herself.
Obviously, that was the purest form of female blackmail. A modern, liberated male would likely smile and hand his wife the roofing nails, but those of us gentlemen of the old school were taught to thank God for little girls who are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” Much as I might wish otherwise, I knew it would be impossible to read Plato while my lady wife was hammering away above my head.
So with the ill grace for which I was justly famous, I borrowed a heavy, wooden ladder and started to learn to shingle. Things went well for awhile, but there was one part of the roof which sloped sharply away from the ladder no matter where I placed it. I solved that problem by parking the car in the backyard, attaching a very long rope to the door frame, draping the rope all the way over the house to the front yard and tying it to my waist. Then I ran up the slope and nailed a shingle in place before I slid back down again. (I have always rather prided myself on my personal gravitas.) For days our friendly neighbors gathered across the street to watch this process. Their helpful comments I will not repeat.
Sadly, I was completely nonplussed when I came to a place where I could not use my rope trick and the ladder would not reach. Therefore, I walked around town until I saw some professional roofers and yelled up to ask them how to proceed beyond the ladder. They told me to nail a two-by-four to the roof and stand on it. I went home, extended the ladder to its full length, leaned off as far as I could, nailed my two-by-four to the roof and climbed on it.
I later discovered that the roofers assumed that I would have sense enough to nail the two- by-four into the studs of the attic, but they did not tell me to do so, and I did not. I anchored the 16-foot two-by-four into one half inch of rotten wooden shingle. The moment I put my weight on the board it came loose and rolled off the roof. I followed it immediately, sliding down the roof and coming to rest at the edge of the gutter and under the ladder with my legs stuck through the rungs. I could not move the ladder at all because I would then fall to the ground.
Thinking with lightning speed and accuracy, I realized that if Margaret held the ladder at the bottom, I could extricate myself from it without serious bodily injury. Thus, perched precariously on the edge of the roof, I calmly asked one of our children, playing in the yard, to please go into the house and call their mother.
Apparently my request was too calmly delivered because our little son returned in a minute and informed me, “Mom said to tell you she is busy.”


Dancing Cheek to Cheek

The older I get, the more content I become with my own preferences.  I try very hard to participate with the modern world but I find it difficult and often annoying.  For example, a recent Presbyterian book of worship recommended the use of dance in the church service.

I grant that many Christians are fabulous dancers, but me and my buddies never considered dancing to be an ecclesiastical activity.  We understood the purpose of dancing to be amatory — a socially regulated kind of syncopated grappling.  If none of us guys was exactly Fred Astaire, at least we could aspire to get our hands on a reasonable facsimile of Ginger Rogers.  Dancing was part of the extremely serious process designed to find a quick-footed partner who was willing to match steps with you waltzing down the ballroom of life.

In those days female persons sat demurely along the wall, like so many flowers, waiting for some man or boy to work up enough courage to inquire, “May I have this dance?”  It was generally agreed that male persons did not have sufficient ear-to-foot coordination to follow the music.  Therefore, men were expected to lead the dance and God’s graceful creature would follow.  Incidentally, even dumb guys understood that if she pinned her corsage in the center of her chest, she wanted you to keep your distance.  If she placed the corsage on an out-of-the-way shoulder, you were allowed to snuggle up a lot closer.  Still, as God intended, male and female danced together.

Things have changed a lot since then.  As best I can tell young people do not dance together anymore.  Instead they jiggle around and shake wildly at each other — giving an entirely different meaning to the phrase “dancing cheek to cheek.”

I suppose I should admit — curmudgeon that I am — that I attend church in order to worship God.  I do not go to church to dance or to watch people dance.  I do not go to church to hug my friends — much less total strangers. However, last summer I almost made an exception for a young woman with a bare and shapely shoulder upon which was tattooed a large Celtic cross.

To my dismay, at a contemporary service not long ago, we were requested to rub the back of the person standing in front of us!  Then we were all supposed to turn around and rub the back of the person standing behind us!

There are three great problems involved in this difficult choreography.  First, some Presbyterians have sore heads and some have sore backs.  In that situation, as Gonzolo said to Sebastian, “you rub the sore / When you should bring the plaster” (Tempest II.1. 137-9).  Second, since many Presbyterians change from one position to another very slowly, a guy with quick hands could easily get his face slapped by the lady behind him.  Thirdly, with many Presbyterians, the front and back look remarkably alike.  This situation always occurs when a church does not know whether it is coming or going.  In other words, when Presbyterians quit going into all the world (Matthew 28:19), they are coming to the end of their road.

In 1927, three North American Presbyterian Churches were represented in world mission by 2,306 missionaries.  These three churches are now united into one great church, but, with a net loss of 34 in 2002, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now has only 300 full-time, long-term missionaries going into the world.

I can’t speak for you, but I don’t feel much like dancing.  Is it my eyes, or are the lights going dim?  If this is the last dance, it remains only to say, “Good night, ladies.”

My Shameful Secret

My mother’s twin sister married a Methodist minister which, in those days, was not considered a serious disgrace.  His first pastorate was in Calico Rock, Arkansas, and after a series of calls (or raises) to larger churches he was elected a bishop.  Soon after this elevation, I told my uncle the only thing he could now aspire to become was any kind of Presbyterian.  I do not think he appreciated this smart-aleck remark.  I know his wife didn’t because she had served countless fried chicken dinners to every bishop-voting Methodist in the whole world.

I learned early that Wesleyans reject predestination, but then I discovered some Calvinists do the same.  I was more shocked to find that Methodists have a doctrine called Christian perfection (based on I Thes. 5:23) and, to get ordained, Methodist ministers must swear they are on the way to being perfect (or holy) in this life.  I asked my uncle to explain Christian perfection to me, but he said Presbyterians could not understand Christian perfection because they had never produced any examples of it.  On the other hand, he said, Presbyterians endorse total depravity with considerable enthusiasm.

I think I understand total depravity.  Total depravity is the conviction that there is not, and in this life never will be, a human being, except Jesus Christ, who can stand before God as sinless.  Nothing about you, then, even the virtues which all your friends praise, is, or ever will be, entirely holy.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”  (I John 1:8).  John Wesley rejected and removed number 15 of the 39 Anglican articles which declares that Christ alone is without sin because he thought his Methodists could be sinless.

If I understand correctly, Methodists believe that Christian perfection is the goal of this life.  Presbyterians believe that Christian perfection is the gift of the next life.   Methodists believe that perfection is possible now; Presbyterians that perfection shall be actual then.   For Methodists perfection is an expectable possession; for Presbyterians it is a necessary petition.  Since Pentecost, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, Methodists believe that perfection is our highest aspiration.  Until the second coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Presbyterians believe that the expectation of Christian perfection is our greatest sin.

All my conscious life I have cheerfully and emphatically believed I was totally depraved.  Therefore, my salvation depends entirely on my Lord, Jesus Christ, who unites me to himself through the gift of faith.  Presbyterians strive toward holiness (I Pet. 1:15, etc.) with all their totally depraved hearts and minds, but unlike the Methodists, no Presbyterian ever expects to reach Christian perfection in this life.

I learned a lot of important stuff at seminary, but I regret that I did not catch onto the importance of the essentially dialectical relationship between justification and sanctification.  The former of these “twin graces” teaches us that our sins are once-for-all forgiven with the cross of Christ.  The latter teaches that with the advocacy of the Holy Spirit we must struggle every day to become more holy.  In their different ways, both Catholics and Methodists collapse these crucial theological distinctions by regarding justification as capable of improvement (the Catholics) or that sanctification can be a possession and process at the same time (the Methodists).  Reformed theology rejects both views with great vigor.

However, we are human beings before we become theological beings.  This means that fathers and mothers matter — especially mothers.  Jewish law recognizes this fact with the assertion that if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.  Only recently have I applied this situation to myself.  You see — and this is my shameful secret — my own dear mother was a Methodist until she married.    Is it possible, I now ask myself, that I am only a head Presbyterian but really a heart Methodist?  This has become for me what used to be called “an existential question.”  Am I totally depraved as my father always suspected or on my way to perfection as my mother always hoped?

To study this issue I appointed a committee (of one) which reported that of the 25 then-faculty members at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, only two grew up in families where both parents were born Presbyterian.  Five had born Presbyterian fathers and five had born-Presbyterian mothers.  Four of the faculty were born into two-parent Methodist homes.  Seven had born-Methodist mothers; seven had born-Methodist fathers.  Interestingly, for more than half the present faculty, neither parent was Presbyterian or Methodist.  What is the significance of these facts?  I am sure I do not know, except that for each of us our family is an important part of our identity.

Upon careful re-reflection, I am happy to conclude that I am not a Methodist mainly because I cannot get my head and heart around John Wesley’s conviction that Christian perfection can be both a possession and a process.  The truth, I believe, is that justification is a possession; sanctification is a process; total depravity is a reality.

Doubtless, interesting theological differences will remain between Methodists and Presbyterians.  However, I know that I am more brother to Methodists who truly believe and plainly affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ than to those Presbyterians who have figured out sophisticated ways to deny, and to replace, and to re-imagine God.

“No one has ever seen God; except the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

If you ask me how I know this is true, I can give you the best and most final answer in this man’s world, “My mother told me so!”

What, Me Worry?

You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then you will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3-4).

If I had only one sermon to preach, this would be my text. The great theologian, Karl Barth, has called this passage the essence of the gospel. I think each preacher should stand under this word always and should exegete it again and preach it anew at least once in every decade of ministry. “Christ our life.” I believe this Scripture expresses the central mystery of the Christian faith which is our union with Christ. “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

However, since I expect to live to preach another day, I would like to step back from this primary mystery and approach the text through a secondary mystery in grateful celebration of the reformation of the sixteenth century. But before you quit listening, I would like (as we say in the late twentieth century) “to share an experience with you” which you may remember when you have forgotten everything else.

It seems obvious to me that those who belong to the Reformed family are more intelligent, more committed, and even better looking than any other group in the world today although I may be slightly biased. Thus when the time came to get a physical examination I searched out a medical doctor who was a Christian of the Reformed persuasion. Having completed a questionnaire, I was directed to a small room and told to remove my clothes. Clad only in goose bumps, I was just about to get the doctrine of the Trinity figured out when a young female nurse opened the door and walked in. Her first words to me were, “Please climb down off the ceiling.” I knew then how Adam felt about turning over a new leaf.

When the doctor came in he looked over the form—the written form—and focused on the question that asked, “Do you worry?” I had checked “yes” rather than “no.” And the doctor said to me, “Christians should not worry.” And so I stood corrected, rebuked, and silent. It is very difficult to engage in a theological discussion when one participant is fully clothed and one is not. By the time I got my clothes on and my wits together, the doctor was gone. I have often thought of that occasion. It is painful to be the unrecognized world record holder for the high jump. Moreover, I now worry about worrying. I don’t know whether you worry. In my classes, the final examination is designed to elicit from students an affirmative response to the possibility of worry—even under appropriate conditions to creating anxiety and despair. If I am honest I must admit that I worry about my family, my church, my country, my world, and myself. In short, I worry about everything that concerns me, and I suspect that you do the same.

On further reflection, and more than fully clothed, I submit that the correct answer to the question, “Do you worry,” is “yes” for everyone who believes in human freedom and responsibility, and “no” for everyone who believes in divine sovereignty and grace. I trust that evaluation is helpful! At least it will increase your admiration for the remarkable analytical ability of seminary faculty members. However, since many Christians want to accept both human freedom and divine sovereignty—the answer is both yes and no. But these two beliefs are held in a different balance and with different intensity by different people and groups. There is, I think, an important difference between the Pelagian Arminian and the Augustinian Calvinian traditions.

I am an admirer of John Calvin, and that admiration includes a certain critical loyalty to the Reformed tradition. Now the Reformed tradition stands for a lot of things, but even those who abuse the memory of John Calvin, in shameful ignorance of his actual teaching, cannot entirely avoid being influenced by his amazed and amazing conviction that in all things we are dealing with God. We see the hand of God, Calvin believed, in prosperity and in adversity.

Calvin knew a lot about adversity. He suffered a headache concentrated on one side which hardly ever left him. Subject to maladies of the trachea, he spit blood when he used his voice too much in the pulpit. He suffered from the hemorrhoidal vein, unbearably increased by an internal abscess that would not heal. Plagued with gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, in addition to stomach cramps, attacks of pleurisy prepared the way for tuberculosis whose helpless victim he became at age 51. Tormented in body, grieved by domestic tragedy, living in Geneva—a place he despised and where many a dog answered to the name “Calvin”—his enemies even used the sad occasion of the death of his son Jacques to charge him with apostasy. Calvin’s response exemplifies his belief that in everything we deal with God. “God has given us a grievous wound to bear in the death of our little son. Still he is the father and knows best for his children. I have other children all over the Christian world.”

Can Reformed Christians worry? Of course, and some of us are of so serious a disposition that people who do not know us well think we are stern and even gloomy. I will leave it to the Church of Scotland to explain why the adjective “dour” is nearly always followed by the noun “Scot.”
Calvin, like me, was of French descent and he insisted that we have a theological right to weep. Reformed Christians are not exempt from the full pain of full humanity; we are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” “We are always under pressure, but never crushed; always in confusion but never in despair; always persecuted but never abandoned; always battered but never beaten” (II Corinthians 4:8). What does this mean, “always beaten on but never beaten up”?

I have referred to all my major resources for understanding except one. Let me add that one now. I hear in Mozart’s great G minor symphony (number 40) all the depth of human tragedy clearly and compellingly expressed, but within a harmony so marvelous and mighty that the result is pure joy. In this most perfect music I hear the most perfect commentary on this most perfect faith: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us and gave himself for us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:32 35, 37 39).

What, me worry? Yes—nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen but deep in my heart I (sometimes) find a place of quiet trust and serene confidence that God is working His purpose out. God has placed a miracle in my head and heart so that I do believe (most of the time) all things work together for good to those who are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28).

How can we ever be finally discouraged when our life is hid with Christ in God? Indeed, except for brief periods of terrible and all too human weakness, how can we be anything but supremely happy? To the extent that human happiness is based on the confidence that the loving God whose face is revealed in Jesus Christ is our Lord, we cannot worry.
I could have learned about that worry freeing confidence from Paul, but—as a matter of fact—I learned it from John who learned it from Paul.

I wish I could know at exactly what moment you recognized that the exposition of this Scripture was being informed by John Calvin’s understanding of the doctrine of God’s eternal election (or predestination). However, I realize that topic is entirely too grand for so brief a time and so early in the day. I am, therefore, grateful for and content with the opportunity to affirm publicly the theology which animates my physician and a lot of other good-looking people.

Feed My Giraffe

After only one month of preaching, my senior elder took me aside and said, “Charles, we think we are going to like you a lot, but your sermons are going right over our heads. You should remember that the Lord said, ‘Feed my sheep’ not my giraffe.” I almost responded that I knew about sheep, but I had received no instructions about grubs. However, even though it nearly choked me, I swallowed this criticism and, with great pastoral tact, thanked my elder for his interest and concern. Then I went home, and would have kicked the cat if we had had a cat.

I was new to the sermonizing profession and I was doing the very best I could to honor God and to serve my people. I worked carefully with the ancient biblical text and its modern application to our lives. I tried to employ whatever I knew of literature and philosophy for the benefit of the congregation. And, I admit, I expected some parishioners to appreciate my hard work.

I had long believed the Phillips Brooks’ 1877 definition of preaching as truth through personality was quite wrong. I thought the cult of personality was just the problem. Growing up, I had objected to smiley preachers offering the company of the faithful a cheery “Good morning” instead of an awestruck invocation of the Almighty God. Too often the message I heard was not “Fear the Lord and serve him faithfully” (Joshua 24:14) but “Relax, folks, I’ve got this gospel thing under control. Therefore, in this fold, the eyes of sheep may safely glaze.”

Of course, my judgment of the sermons I heard might well be a compensatory projection for my own lack of personality. However, even our certain confidence in justification does not eliminate our abject humility in sanctification. While the theological tension between the forgiven life and the amended life does not affect salvation, it sure as hell affects self-satisfaction.

Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about preaching, but after five decades I have come to the following conclusions.

First, a faithful Presbyterian minister will believe the miracle that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God (Second Helvetic Confession, Book of Confessions 5.004).

Second, a Presbyterian minister will believe that theological truth is not to be defined as an abstract noun but as the personal name of Our Lord, who declared, “I am the Truth” (John 14:6).

Third, a Presbyterian minister will use the personality that has been justified and is being sanctified for the upbuilding of God’s kingdom with gratitude and humility (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Fourth, and at the risk of appearing sheepish, I would like to stick my neck out and say a good word for the giraffe among us. The giraffe, like the Presbyterian, is one of God’s most distinctive creatures. The camelopard has only seven vertebrae in the neck (as we do), but at 18 feet tall, they are the tallest of the mammals, and while they do not have a gall bladder, they do have keen sight, smell and hearing. Both the giraffe and the Calvinist often appear ungainly but each can move swiftly when it’s needful. I know this because on a trip in East Africa I was privileged to see a group of them running at 30 miles per hour across open country. I refer to giraffes, not Calvinists.

Like every preacher, I tremble before John Milton’s heavy, savage, latinate denunciation of our profession:

Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful Herdman’s art be longs!…
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread . . . .
(Lycidas 119-121, 125-127)

Of course, not all sheep are mutton-headed. According to John Calvin, “no one will ever be a good minister of the word of God who is not a first-rate scholar” (Calvini Opera 26, 406). There are some giraffe among the sheep and the “faithful herdman’s art” extends to reaching up for them rather than trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

Decently and in Ordure

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but part of the problem with Presbyterians today is they do not often enough smell to high heaven.  That is, Presbyterians look down their noses more regularly at bad order than at bad odor. Obviously God made human beings with five senses.  Puzzling over how they worked together caused Aristotle to posit a “common sense” (De Anima, III).  The Bible addresses all five of our senses:  See my hands (Luke 24: 39); Hear, O Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4); Touch his clothes (Mark 5:28); Taste the heavenly gift (Hebrews 6:40), but for most of us smell is the most undeveloped and unimportant of our senses.  My wife has a much sharper sense of smell than I do.  She claims that she could be blindfolded, ears stopped, hands tied, and she could walk down a line of 100 men and pick me out every time.  I am not entirely sure that is a compliment, but some day when I can get 100 guys to stand still, I intend to test her on it.

Years ago ordination services had an identifiable smell.  According to the instructions of Exodus 29, the ram of ordination was killed and some of its blood was put on the new minister’s right ear, and the thumb of his right hand, and the great toe of his right foot.  More blood was splashed on altar and clothes.  Then the new minister was given the ram’s intestine to wave around — an action called “a wave offering before the Lord”  (Exodus 29:24).

I have often thought how much liturgical fun it would be to twirl a slimy intestine around my head like a Western movie star in a vigorous wave offering.  However, with my luck it would slip out of my hand and sail over the heads of the congregation.  Doubtless someone would start the rumor that I was “gutless.”

Therefore I am not sorry that ordinations today are bloodless, except that the Aaronic ordination service reminds us that life is identified with blood in the Bible.  If the new minister stood covered with the blood of the ram of ordination, the congregation would be vividly reminded that all Christians are ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19), the Lamb of God slain for us before the foundation of the world (Revelation 5:12).

A very prominent Presbyterian minister on being asked what he made of the blood of Christ answered, “As little as possible.”  This comment demonstrates the theological maxim that what is not easy to understand is not hard to dismiss.

The sacrificial instructions of Exodus 29 include not only blood but something else that T-shirts and bumper stickers assure us happens.  I once read an exam paper in Reformation history that discussed “Martin Luther’s 95 feces.”  “The flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp”(v. 14).

On the mind of all Christians that verse should explode on impact.  We know that Christians are supposed to get their hands dirty in the world, and walking obediently with the Lord means that sometimes our feet will stink.

The 13th chapter of Hebrews makes it very clear that Christians are to work outside the camp where the dung is burning.  That servants are required to clean up the mess is no surprise.  Servants are always employed to do unpleasant tasks.  What is a surprise is, that the Master is already out there working in the filth.  And, if we want to be the servants of that Master, we must join him outside the camp where the dung is burning:  “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.”

“Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp bearing abuse for him.  For here we have no lasting city . . .”(v. 11-14).

In our language four of our senses carry positive presumptions, “You see,”  “You hear,” “You touch,” “You taste” are descriptive in a way that “You smell” is not.  Most of us would rather have bad breath than no breath at all.  But Christians (and Presbyterians among them) are supposed to have a strong smell, because we are “the aroma of Christ’ spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere.  “. . .[T]o the one we are a fragrance from death to death; to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).

African Childhood Christmas Memories

These Christmas Memories were written and presented by Margaret McClure Partee at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

For a riveting account of Don McClure’s life in missionary service, see

Childhood memories are often difficult to talk about because children are so wonderfully adaptable and accept whatever they experience as normal. I was born in Khartoum, Sudan to Presbyterian missionary parents. My dad was a pioneer missionary which meant he went into places where no white man had ever been before to open new stations among the Anuak tribe. In our part of south Sudan to get to the nearest white family required a week’s hard travel by canoe. All my friends were black, and I thought I was kind of abnormal. I grew up influenced by two cultures and still do not completely belong to either. For example, I am more comfortable sitting on the floor. My idea of physical beauty is black skin and black hair. My white skin and red hair seemed odd. I was dismayed at the birth of my first child. I had seen lots of just-born black babies, but mine looked really bleached out. Sometimes I forget and point with my tongue since in the Anuak culture it is rude to point with a finger. In Africa we went barefoot year round, and I occasionally still pick things up off the floor with my toes, as the Anuaks do.

My dad was determined to live as much as possible like the tribal people he served. His chosen work was among a tribe which lived in tiny mud huts with no windows and just a hole for a door (to keep animals out). It was not possible to raise an American family in those primitive conditions. Therefore, Dad built, with Mother’s approval and according to her design, four large mud huts for us to live in connected by passageways with wire screening. Like the Anuaks, our huts had grass roofs and mud floors. Except for the wire screening, our huts could have been built by the Anuaks. We had no electricity, of course, and all our meals were cooked on a wood stove. We slept on “angoreebs,” native beds which were roughhewn wooden frames with ropes of animal skins woven to support a thin mattress. My mother stretched muslin above our beds so that scorpions would not fall out of the grass roof and into our beds at night when we were asleep. Rats, bats, snakes, and other fauna inhabited our house with us at unexpected times.

When we came back to the States for the first time, I discovered to my amazement at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference that a lot of American kids are afraid of snakes since they do not have to learn which are dangerous and which are harmless. So I enlisted my brother to help me catch some garter snakes which I hid in the dining hall under the lids of the sugar bowls. The response at breakfast the next day was all I could have desired, and my reputation for that stunt has not yet completely faded. One night at home in Sudan, I started out to put my bicycle away, which I had left in the peanut patch that served us as a front lawn. When I began to open the screen door, I discovered a huge lion standing on the other side looking at me. He was so close I could feel his warm breath on my arm. That night I decided my bicycle could stay right where it was.

As a young girl on the African grasslands, with my brother and sister, I ran free. Every morning during family devotions Dad would commit us into the care of the Lord and at evening devotions he would thank the Lord that we were still alive. In between times we roamed wherever we pleased. We swam in the river where crocodiles lurked; we visited our friends in the villages where diseases such as tuberculosis, encephalitis, and leprosy were rampant; we rode our donkey, Balaam, or our bicycles through grass and woodlands inhabited by lions, leopards, and poisonous snakes. As soon as we were big enough we went hunting for table food. We also learned to shoot crocodiles which were terrorizing the women who came down to the river for water. We made pets of lion cubs, ostriches, gazelles, and snakes. One night my dad heard a leopard in our chicken house. He grabbed the rifle and a light which was hooked up to a car battery. Dad could not wake up anybody but me so out we went to shoot the leopard. My job was to shine the light on the leopard, but I could barely carry the car battery. When we got to the chicken house, I could not lift the battery high enough to get light on the leopard. Dad handed me the rifle. He held the light up high, and I shot the leopard. I still have that leopard’s skin. If you want to see it, let me know.

For some years Mother was our school teacher, but the time came when we three children had to be sent 3,000 miles away to a boarding school in Egypt. I was 12, my brother was 9, and my sister 8 . Since it took a month to travel from Akobo in the South Sudan to Assiut in Egypt by canoe, donkey, paddle wheel steamer, and train and the same amount of time going back, from then on we were home only one month each year. From the age of twelve until I married, I never again celebrated a Christmas or my birthday in my own home. My real birthday is May 4, but the doctor in Khartoum marked May 14 on my official birth certificate, which has caused all kinds of confusion. Homesickness was a real specter during those years of what felt like exile in Egypt. Moreover, I could not easily accept the confinement of a boarding school located in a Muslim culture where girls have a strictly defined and circumscribed place. After the freedom of my early years I had difficulty adjusting to the fact that in Egypt we were rarely permitted to leave the mission compound.

Our Christmas celebrations in Africa were, of course, quite different from here. To begin with our Christian community was small. We felt like one little Christmas candle in the dark heart of the dark continent. In those early years we were celebrating an event which had no meaning for the Anuaks. Also, we were very much aware in celebrating the joy of our Savior’s birth, there was immense suffering all around us. I am happy to say that because of Mom’s and Dad’s work–and all those who helped them–the Anuak tribe today is mostly Christian.

Let me share with you two serious and two silly Christmas memories. December in the Sudan comes during the dry season when it does not rain for six months. There was no green thing to see except in our kitchen garden which was irrigated from the Akobo River. Our Christmas tree was sometimes a denuded thorn tree and sometimes a bundle of dried grass fronds tied together. At our remote Christian outpost deep in Africa, travel was difficult and there were no malls nearby for Christmas shopping. The only things shipped in were those necessary food staples which could not be grown in our garden. Therefore, our decorations and gifts were never bought but always homemade. Each of us spent the month before Christmas sneaking around trying to avoid being caught in the process of creating a gift out of something everybody had seen. We also made gifts for our village friends for whom any little homemade doll or bean bag was a source of great delight. In turn they gave us eggs. Christmas Day was very much like any other day. It started at 6:00 am with a worship service. Then Dad opened his daily clinic for the sick. The nearest hospital or doctor was ten days away, and the people were too poor to pay anything anyway, so every illness needed to be treated on the spot. Dad was a graduate of Pittsburgh seminary and not Pittsburgh medical school, but he did the best he could. I can remember the hours Dad spent at night reading medical books by lantern light to be able to treat the sick people all around us. Mother did her best to teach the women something about hygiene, and nutrition and child care. I can still see the man, carried into the mission station, who had been clawed by a leopard; another man had his leg snapped off by a crocodile; and a leper who had lost his fingers and toes to the disease. Children were carried in who had fallen into an open fire, or with tropical ulcers that had eaten the flesh away leaving their bones exposed.

After clinic was over, we were allowed to open our gifts. Since there were not many of them, my parents always insisted that we take turns so everyone could admire each gift. Christmas dinner followed with whatever wild game we were able to find. In the dry season game is scarce so our Christmas dinner was often canned meat with fresh vegetables and fruit from our irrigated garden. In the afternoon special services were held in the various villages to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas evening offered a feast of rice and chicken stew for the schoolboys and for the small Christian community– ending with a hymnsing.

Since December in Sudan occurs during the six months when no rain falls, the Christmas season always reminds me how many of God’s people live on the edge of starvation. One Christmas arrived in the middle of a terrible famine among the Anuaks due to three years of ruined crops. The first year there was too much rain, then not enough rain, finally locust flew in and ate every available leaf. Christmas morning that year was a repeat of many mornings when we were awakened in the predawn darkness, not by the sound of Christmas carols, but by the shuffling of hundreds of bare feet as the Anuaks lined up for their daily ration of grain. At 6:00 am Dad went out for a worship service with the masses of hungry people who had gathered from miles around. After the service each person was given a cup of grain as their daily portion. Many times during that dry Christmas and Advent we would be down to our last sack of grain with no promise of more. Sometimes we had run out of money. Other times it was lack of transportation for the grain we had bought with money sent by our supporters. Still other times Dad could not find grain to buy since the famine was widespread.

The little Anuak Christian community prayed faithfully each day for the Lord to provide their daily bread. Even today during the Lord’s Prayer when I say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” I often see the faces of those Anuaks to whom the answer to that petition meant the difference between life and death. Our Christmas meals in those famine years were quite simple because it is very difficult to eat a hearty meal when hundreds of hungry people are sitting in your yard, too weak to move, and watching every bite going into your mouth. Thankfully, sufficient money kept coming just in time–time and time again. We were grateful that our prayers were always answered and enough grain arrived at the critical times to keep the Anuaks alive until their crops could grow.

Not all my Christmas memories are of lean years. One Christmas dinner had its origins in August. My Dad was always introducing new animals and new crops to combat the malnutrition that stalked the villages. Before our family arrived the Anuaks subsisted on one meal a day composed of a porridge with occasional pieces of fish or game. They hunted with spears and meat was rare indeed. So Dad was ecstatic when we were offered a couple of pigs by an English official some 1500 miles down the Nile River. Dad planned to raise the pigs and give them in pairs to the villagers to raise for meat. Thus he anxiously awaited his piglets. After the Nile steamer arrived, the captain sent word for Dad to come get his pigs. When Dad got to the boat, instead of the pair of little piglets he expected, he was confronted with nine bad-tempered, full-grown hogs. Since the crew of the steamer were Muslim, they believed the pigs were unclean and refused to touch them. The Anuaks, having never seen such animals, were afraid of them. That left Dad alone to unload the hogs by himself. He tried herding them. He tried leading them on a rope. He tried carrying them. All no good. The hogs squealed and fought back. The noise was so incredible that people began to run in from all the villages around our house. They lined the banks of the river laughing and cheering. The crew of the steamer leaned over the railing (a good distance away from the action), hooting and hollering. Finally, Dad had a brainstorm. He grabbed the hind legs of one hog and wheelbarrowed that animal across the gangplank and up to the pen he had built for two small piglets. The other eight pigs were transported in similar fashion.

Dad came home, bathed, and had just sat down for supper when one of the schoolboys came running in, calling “Odon, Odon, the pigs are out of the pen and are rooting up the peanut crop.” (The Anuaks had heard my mother say, “Oh Don” so often that they thought it was his name.) So Dad jumped up from the table, and calling to the 25 schoolboys for help, ran out to catch the hogs and put them back. However, the boys were afraid of the pigs, but being male did not want to admit it. So they would charge the pigs full-steam and just before catching them would stumble and miss. Or they would watch the hogs run by at full speed and step aside just before the hog was in catching range. In the end Dad had to catch all the hogs himself. However, when Christmas rolled around that year we had roast pork instead of canned meat, so we thought the whole thing was worth it. I don’t know what Dad thought.

In reflecting on my childhood Christmas memories, I asked my brother, Don, what memories of Christmas in Africa he most cherished. Since Don was a missionary for 15 years in Ethiopia (Dad Don and Mother Lyda were in Africa for nearly 50 years), his memories of African Christmases are more recent than mine–by about 40 years. He especially treasures one Christmas memory because it illustrates our Dad’s love of life and sense of humor. At the time my brother was starting a new mission station among the Surma tribe. Don, Jr. and his wife and three small girls were living in tents until they could build a house. Mom and Dad flew down from Addis Ababa to celebrate Christmas with the family. Remember this is December in East Africa. Everything in the barren grassland is brown and yellow with no living plant. Dad, now in his 70’s, packed an artificial Christmas tree in his suitcase. When the little girls were asleep, he went out some distance away and “planted” the green tree. Next day, Dad and three tiny girls went out, carrying an axe, to search for a Christmas tree that looked like the pictures in their American storybooks. It did not take very long to spot the artificial tree since it was the only green thing for hundreds of miles around.. Granddad and his three granddaughters duly “chopped” down the tree and came home thrilled that they had found a real storybook Christmas tree amidst the brown grass and thorn trees in the middle of an African dry season.

As again we celebrate the birth of our Savior, I hope you will have a blessed Christmas present filled with pleasant memories of Christmas past and anticipating lovely memories of Christmas future.