Editor's note: Shepherds were the first to hear and tell the world's best news. Missionaries 20.01 centuries later may pack a laptop and phone card, but '"living out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night" is still part of the job description. For the overseas workers whose letters home are included here, habitual Christmas endeavors acquire uncommon backdrops. Nativity pageants unfold against the sound of gunfire. Visits to shut-ins confront the recently maimed and orphaned. Making a memory excludes Grandma and the family china. The bad news is that ethnic rivalries and faith-based conflicts are on the rise in many parts of the world. The good news is ... the good news. Unlike any of the world's other religions, evangelical Christianity is growing more than three times as fast as the world's population. And it is growing best in the places-Latin America, Asia, and Africa-where missionaries exchanged the comfort of hearth and home for stranger pastures. Bless them. Dear Praying Friends,
We are privileged to be spending Christmas in Bundibugyo, Uganda, where the pace and substance of daily life are not significantly removed from Palestine 2,000 years ago. Teenage girls still birth babies in huts of mud and straw where chickens bed down next to children, soldiers patrol muddy roads, thousands and thousands are displaced and crowded, no electric lights pollute the night-time curtain of starlight, boys herd goats and cows and sheep with sticks, and a whole people-group longs for deliverance and peace. The deeper the darkness the more brightly startling a shining light appears. So it is here, where ever present reminders of the Fall accentuate the good news of Christmas, where the lurking threat of death gives an edge to life that is paradoxically frightening yet invigoratingly real. "He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found." Thank you for praying the flow of those blessings into Bundibugyo, a stronghold of the curse for many generations. We've heard quite a battle high up in the mountains today with resonant booms echoing downward, and continue to see the effects of the war. Scott treated a young boy whose gunshot wound to the leg had become infected. I saw a one-month-old baby this morning whose mother was killed by rebels. Pray for justice, for peace. Pray that in the meantime God would give people hope in Himself alone. Pray for blessings to flow, literally, in the Ngite water pipeline. Ever since last year's disastrous flood Michael has been designing an improved intake system high at the waterfall source. The temporary intake frequently clogs or malfunctions, interrupting the water supply down below. After weeks of welding large pipes at interesting angles down here at the mission he is now carting them up to Ngite for installation. Pray for safety as Michael and his helpers climb rocks and connect pipes in a mountain crevice that has been the scene of rebel activity in the past. Pray for Lynn, Karen, and Mary Ann as they work with two women's groups who want to present Christmas plays, acting out the story and retelling in song what they cannot read for themselves in a Bible. Pray that their interpretation of Jesus' birth will push the flow of His blessing a little further as many hear and watch. Johnson's daughter Asaba, who almost died last week, presumably with cerebral malaria, has made a full recovery. Bringing the flow of blessing into a place of curse is only done at a cost. Each of Johnson's two young daughters survived life-threatening illnesses this year! The traditional Christmas greeting here is "Webale Kwiko"-thank you for surviving the year. As the year draws to a close we could be tempted to weep over our failures which loom large ... but thank God that His grace looms larger. We thank you for praying us through [among many things] watching the jaw and abdominal tumors melt from Ngonzi Edward, an 8-year-old who survived chemotherapy administered by Scott in the incongruously primitive Nyahuka Health Center and to date appears to be cured of Burkitt's lymphoma; lifting screaming babies to dangle from a spring scale at shelter after shelter until 900 had been surveyed to assess nutrition among the displaced; dripping IV quinine into a child dying of cerebral malaria in our kitubbi and seeing him play a few days later; crouching on the floor on Scott's birthday during an hour-long gun battle between Uganda forces and a handful of fleeing rebels; then emerging from that threat to decorate a cake and host the team for dinner.... The very essence of Christmas reminds us that in our weakness He is triumphant, that in gasping baby flesh He wrapped the Word of Life.
-Jennifer Myhre, World Harvest Mission team member in Bundibugyo, Uganda Dear Praying Friends,
After a summer furlough in the United States, the Kurtenbach family is back in Quito, Ecuador. But are we home? We most certainly are glad to return to our familiar surroundings-our own house, our friends who greet us enthusiastically with "Welcome back!" Our kids have returned to their own beds, their classrooms, and friends. Yes, it feels like home. And yet it doesn't. Furloughs are also called "home ministry assignments." But are we really going "home"? Life there has changed. We have changed. The once familiar is less familiar. On this furlough I was surprised by a stronger pull to my home in South Dakota, even though we have spent about one-sixth of our lives in Ecuador. We are pulled to extended family, our children's uncles and aunts and cousins. We are pulled to the homes where we grew up and to the rural roads that allow time to think, not merely react. We are pulled to spend time with an uncle who is dying with cancer. On furlough we worked in the family greenhouse and nursery. We and the boys carefully dug seedling trees from beds and potted them, watching them grow as the summer wore on. And then when time came to return to Quito, we left the trees behind. Where does a missionary plant trees? Where to set roots? My momma felt it was time to distribute the family heirlooms-fine china, old jewelry passed down from one generation to the next, my dad's amateur baseball uniform. What does a missionary do with heirlooms? We have not yet figured out how not to have stuff on two different continents. We see our momentos as often as we see family-every couple of years or so. To the Christian this so-called "rootlessness" serves to illustrate a biblical truth. In our life on earth, we are transients. Someday we will say farewell to our loved ones and then die and go to either heaven or hell. In the meantime, where is home? Different stages of life will provide us different answers. But our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. And we look forward to Jesus someday stretching out His mighty arms and saying to us, "Welcome Home!"
-Ralph Kurtenbach, HCJB Radio, Quito, Ecuador Dear Praying Friends,
I held in my arms a small baby, barely a week old, born in a basement under aerial bombardment and now living in an abandoned train wagon. He was a refugee like Jesus, a victim of war. He died a couple of weeks ago in that same train wagon. His short life had never known peace. Did we fail him? Another boy was about six years old, tow-headed blond, unusual among such a dark people. He was very quiet with a preternatural stillness about him, unusual for a boy of his age. Thin, with pale skin, he sat by his grandmother on her bed allowing her to caress him and run her fingers through his hair. He did not shrink from our presence, nor did he pester us to take his photo like other children. He remained quiet and watchful, measuring us and taking little notice of his grandmother. She spoke: "His mother is dead, killed in a bombing raid-a rocket got her." "Father?" I asked. "Akh," she spat with disgust, waving her hand to somewhere out there. "That means he's off with the fighters," one of our escorts explained to me in a whisper. We moved off into other areas of the large and overcrowded basement. Families had taken up residence everywhere, carving up the large space into separate units by hanging sheets and blankets. Homemade gas furnaces pumped heat into the rooms. They heated the porous concrete walls, creating a suffocating pall of humidity that left the elders wheezing, the mothers flushed, and the children coughing at night. A collective of the mothers cornered us with heavy concerns about their children. As my companion listened sympathetically to their stories, I wandered back to our guards and found them in conversation with the blond boy. He had put on some old torn boots and a grubby jacket. He edged up to stand between them. He was talking weapons, unimpressed at the choice of gun made by Akhmed, one of the guards. It was a folding-stock, short-barrelled AK-47 especially designed for special forces units. "I have a machine gun at home. It's bigger than yours," the boy informed Akhmed. He went on to inquire about loading and firing procedures. He paid no attention to me, the foreigner, or to any of the other children who trailed me everywhere. He talked only with the soldiers. We left the boy and moved out from the steaming darkness of the basement into the sharp sunlight. Trudging through thick mud, we stopped to visit other families squirreled away everywhere throughout the abandoned factory complex. Emerging outside from one small room that housed 15 people (who sleep in shifts), I saw that the boy had reappeared again. "Where are your new boots?" asked Kharon, a relief worker, after seeing the old and torn shoes the boy was wearing. "Our agency was here yesterday distributing new winter boots to everyone. I remember him," Kharon told me. "I'm saving them," said the boy as he walked on past us, shadowing the soldiers, certain of his future. "Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called ... Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end" (Isaiah 9:5-7). Two thousand years since a small child was born in a barn and was heralded as the Prince of Peace, are we any closer to the realization of that promise, has the Messiah truly saved us from ourselves, is there peace? Have we done all that we can to make His Kingdom come, or are we among those who "dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace."?
-Geoff Ryan, Salvation Army Regional Officer for Southern Russia, in Ingushetia along the Chechen border