Thursday, December 31, 2020

Christmas at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere


Since childhood, I’d listened to Christmas music by the hour, so in Lomalinda I felt blue about having to do without it. But our radio lab guys came to the rescue. They broadcast Christmas music throughout our center, which we picked up on the radio at home by wrapping our phone cord around our radio antenna. Ingenious.


My sweet mother-in-law had mailed us felt-and-sequin Christmas stocking kits for me to make for the kids. What fun! We had no other decorations—we’d made tough decisions about what to squeeze into our luggage—so I asked my mom to send a small piece of green felt which I planned to craft into some kind of Christmas tree. I imagined it would turn out sad, even pathetic, but it was the best I could do.


Then one day Marge Krikorian—bless her heart!—arrived at our back door with a few Christmas decorations and an artificial tree, twenty-four inches tall. My heart soared. Friends, relatives, and supporters from back home in Seattle sent us tiny gifts to put under the tree for our first Christmas separated from loved ones.


Lomalinda’s people knew loneliness and isolation. They knew how it felt to say goodbye to family for years at a time, to leave homeland and traditions and familiar culture, and to spend holidays and birthdays far from home. And that’s why Marge helped us. I’ve always remembered her thoughtfulness so many years ago.


December 21, 1976

Dear Mom and Dad,

Saturday Dave borrowed a motorbike and drove the two of us to the nearest town, Puerto Lleras. I’d heard things about it that led me to expect the worst, but it turned out to be better than I imagined. The place wasn’t a Northgate shopping mall—selection was minimal, as was quality—but it was more than I’d seen in four months. I bought a piece of fabric for Dave to give me for Christmas, and Dave bought a gold felt hat for the kids to give him. That’s the way we’re shopping this year.

Art Florer, one of Dave’s fellow teachers, joined us for Christmas Eve dinner and then we walked to the auditorium for a cantata performed by Wes and Mary Ann Syverson’s group. They had created elaborate decorations and lighting, and we enjoyed the professional sound of those talented men and women.

Afterward, we walked to Howie and Shirley Bowman’s home for a small gathering. Howie asked each of us to share memories of a special Christmas from the past. His question made me homesick, yet I knew that in the future if someone asked about a special Christmas from my past, I’d tell them about our evening with the Bowmans and our Lomalinda “family.”

Gladys and Rich Janssen invited us to join their family for dinner on Christmas Day and asked me to bring a gelatin salad. The thermometer in the cool end of our house read 104 degrees. We lived close to the Janssens, only around the corner, but even so, that salad started melting before we arrived.

That Christmas was different from all others, yet friends surrounded our young family. In the years since then, I’ve recognized that no matter where we are, whether it’s a “white Christmas” or a blistering one, whether with family or not, we can still celebrate it. (from chapter 16, Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir)


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Dreaming of a black Christmas


Lomalinda was into the dry season. Daytime temperatures soared to over a hundred degrees in the shade—cruel, withering.


The green scent of rainy season had given way to the spicy fragrance of sun-dried grasses. Immense stretches of emerald disappeared, leaving the grasslands stiff and bleached and simmering under unrelenting equatorial sun.


From sunrise to sundown, a stiff wind blew across the llanos (plains), a gift from God because the parched wind gave us a break from the profuse sweating we endured in rainy season so, in that way, it was a friend, but it could also be a foe.


One blistering afternoon, Dr. Altig hollered through our screen door, “Call for help! We have a fire!” Across the road, at Ruth’s house, flames leaped and smoke billowed.


I dialed the emergency number, told my little Karen to stay home, grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and ran to Ruth’s yard, dousing flames closest to her house.


A few buckets later, my heart sank. Wind had whipped the fire out of control. The situation looked hopeless until I noticed that, by God’s grace, the wind blew the flames away from Ruth’s house, toward an unpopulated valley. Rich and Gladys Janssen’s home stood at the top of the low hill beyond.


I heard a siren, and soon an antiquated fire truck roared over the brink of the hill. Behind it streamed a line of motorbikes bringing men and boys, shovels, buckets, and blankets.


School had dismissed, offices had closed, and every able man and boy took on the role of a fireman, forming a line through the valley. Shovels in hand, they worked toward Janssens’ house, turning over soil, creating a fire line, fighting to keep the blazes from turning back on them. Someone hosed the Janssens’ side yard while flames neared.


In Lomalinda, only four degrees from the equator, the afternoon sun alone had potential to sicken a person from even mild exertion, but those men and boys gave their all, surrounded by flames, often without masks. They wore no protective gear as our firefighters do nowadays—they had only the clothes they wore to the office or school that morning. Their sweat-soaked shirts clung to them. Ash and dust coated their faces.


The guys succeeded in keeping the fire from the Janssen home, but it raced up a hill near the Kinch home. Wind whipped flames against their brick house.


A high school boy, Tim Goring, remembers:


“I tried to start a backfire but only had time to drop a match or two, and then the fire roared up the hill toward me. It got so hot I couldn't breathe. I lay down in a ditch for a minute until the fire burned out, then got up to check the house. The fire had melted the window screens and warmed up the propane tanks, but otherwise, no harm was done.”


From there the inferno changed its course, beyond Lomalinda, and continued to burn for hours, incinerating grasses and palm trees in its path. By the time the sun hung low in the west, the immediate danger had passed.


A couple of miles of grasslands lay between us and our farm, Finca Bonaire, and the staff had plowed a fire line. Before long the sky turned dark, but in the distance toward the farm, red glowing fingers reached into the night sky. By morning the fire had burned itself out.


A few days later, I walked a sun-cracked track while that celestial fireball cooked my skin and the smell of charred grassland swirled in the breeze. The school principal, Pris Bartram, puttered up to me on her red motorbike. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!”


Pris watched me for a few seconds and then laughed—my face had betrayed my thoughts. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “This looks like Christmas? You’ve got to be kidding!”


To me, Christmas looks like frost-covered evergreens, and snowflakes, and frozen puddles. Heavy coats, scarves, mittens, boots. Runny noses. Sledding. Ice skating. Swags of cedar and pine and holly tied with red ribbons.


I learned a lesson that hot, dry December day. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” means different things to different people.


To most Lomalindians, especially kids, Christmas looked like a bleached landscape, charred fields, hot wind, and a whiff of ashes in the air. Folks enjoyed saying, “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas.” (from Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go:  A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir, Chapter 16)


Thursday, December 10, 2020

December: Dust on our necks and in our armpits and up our noses


We turned the calendar page and entered December. We’d lived in Lomalinda for three and a half months.


Back home, Seattle would be a place of swollen clouds and rain, and frost once in a while. People would be wearing rain boots and raincoats and stocking caps and gloves.


Family and friends would have recently gathered for Thanksgiving, a squally season when tempests stirred up wild seas and sent ferry boats bobbing and careening, when windstorms downed trees throughout the Puget Sound region, caused widespread power outages, left half-baked turkeys and pumpkin pies in cold ovens, and drew people together around fireplaces in homes perfumed by wood smoke.


But Lomalinda had just transitioned out of her hot rainy season and was into her hotter dry season. We were enjoying clean cerulean skies and hardly a wisp of a cloud.


Daytime temperatures rose to over a hundred degrees in the shade—cruel, withering. The green scent of rainy season had given way to the spicy fragrance of sun-dried grasses. Immense stretches of emerald disappeared, leaving grasslands stiff and simmering under unrelenting sun.


Muddy paths and single-lane tracks turned rock-hard and, with use, changed to dust. Yards and airstrips and open fields turned to dust, too.


From sunrise to sundown, a strong wind blew across the llanos, a gift from God because it offered a little relief from the heat. On the other hand, we had to use rocks and paperweights and other heavy objects to keep papers from blowing away.


Dust blew through slatted windows and into homes and offices and settled on our counters and furniture and in cracks and crannies and on our necks and in our armpits and up our noses.


The Ariari River ran low and people in the nearby town, Puerto Lleras, caught caiman, butchered it, and sold it to our commissary.


Some people hauled in catfish, ten feet long and longer, which they hacked into chunks and sold in our commissary or served in the dining hall.


During rainy season, sometimes laundry took days to dry in our screened-in porch, but in dry season I hung laundry outside and, after pegging up the last garment in the laundry basket, I took down the first pieces I’d hung—the hot wind had already dried them. (From Chapter 16, Please, God, Don’t Make Me  Go: A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir)

Esther Gross photo

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Leave your plain vanilla life: “Go ahead . . . I dare you”


Sometimes when we think God has gotten something all wrong, as I did when He sent us to Lomalinda, the Bible tells us to look back and remember what God has done. In fact, the Bible frequently reminds us of the importance of remembering.


Mike Metzger drives home the point:


“Many churches have forgotten the premium that the historic Judeo-Christian tradition placed on remembrance . . . and recalling the right things. The ‘great sin’ of the Old Testament was forgetfulness (at least it is the most recurrent offense). ‘Remember’ is the most frequent command in the Old Testament.”  (Clapham Memo, January 19, 2007, “Back and Forth,” by Mike Metzger; emphasis mine) 


How sad it is that we are so forgetful.


Ah, but when we take time to remember what God has done in the past, everything takes on a new perspective.


Last week I told you my memories of how God so kindly prepared this cowardly home-body, me, to do the unthinkable, the unfathomable—to move to South America—by (1) leading me to the public library to learn about Colombia, and (2) leading me to books Wycliffe missionaries had written and magazines Wycliffe had published. And as I read, I changed. Through other people’s stories, God helped me envision myself doing the impossible. They showed me how to do it, in specific, practical ways. (Read more at Slow steps of progress wrapped in grace.”)


But God did even more to prepare me! He choreographed people and circumstances that brought Marie Goehner into my life. Let me tell you my memories of that.


Before Dave and I and the kids left the States for Lomalinda, Harvey and Shirley Strand (my sister-in-law's parents and also dear friends of our family) invited us to their home to meet their friend Marie.


Marie had been a nurse in Lomalinda for a few years but had returned to the States to help her aging parents. She was grieving over leaving Lomalinda and longed to return.


But while she was home, God continued to use Marie in significant ways. One of them was to prepare me and my family.   


That evening at the Strands’ home, Marie showed us and our parents slides of Lomalinda and told us many stories. Hearing how much Marie loved Lomalinda, and seeing photos of homes, geography, and our future colleagues’ faces helped prepare me mentally, spiritually, and emotionally to move to Lomalinda.


And listening to Marie was enormously comforting and helpful for our nervous parents, too. What a gift from God!


Fast-forward a few months: As I struggled to adjust to living in Lomalinda (that’s putting it mildly—it was really messy at first) gradually it became clearer to me that we are God’s workmanship, that He has created specific things for us to do, and that He prepares them in advance (Ephesians 2:10).


And He also prepares us. Through Marie, God was gently, lovingly persuading me to be willing to leave my family and my home—and leave my plain vanilla life—and relocate in Lomalinda.


And once there, when I got into trouble, I needed to remember how God had prepared me to be there.


A man so different from me, Chuck Swindoll, writes, “Call it the rebel in me, but I simply cannot bear plain vanilla when life has so many other flavors far more interesting and tasty. God has so much more in view for all of us. God has arranged an abundant life for you [John 10:10].”


Chuck encourages us to “take life by the throat and . . . take the Lord up on His gracious offer to give you a rich and rewarding life.”


But then he asks us the big question—he acknowledges the elephant in the room: “Why is that so hard to embrace?


“He’s here for you. He’s in your corner. He wants to pour out His great pleasure on you—He desires that you live abundantly, joyfully, freely. Why not try living abundantly, joyfully, and freely for a change? Go ahead . . . I dare you.”

(Charles R. Swindoll, from Good Morning, Lord . . . Can We Talk?)


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