As far as I can recall, this is my first Christmas away from my family. When I was a child, we spent several Christmases together in Mexico on mission trips. One time we all met up in South Padre Island, Texas for the holidays. Now before you get too envious over those travels in terms of weather, please know that snow followed us each and every time without fail. The Smith family does not dream of snow at Christmas, but evidence proves snow must dream of the Smith family.
I purposefully did not pack cold weather clothes for this journey for several reasons. Reason #1: I dislike cold weather. Reason #2: Cold weather clothes take up way too much room in a pack unless one is specifically planning for it. Reason #3: I dislike cold weather. Yep, I made that point twice…that is how much I dislike cold weather. I figured I would be able to keep moving to warmer climates as the seasons change. I planned to continue chasing the sun.
Knowing I would not be in Wisconsin for Christmas, I made a request of God. I said, “Lord, I will go anywhere You ask me to go. I will do whatever You ask me to do. I will follow Your lead, but if it is Your will and if it is possible, can I have sand and palms for Christmas?” Man, I was picturing myself on a tropical beach somewhere with an exotic fruit drink in my hand as the beautiful, deep, blue waves crashed upon the shore. Maybe I am wearing sunglasses and one of those large, floppy brimmed, straw hats with a gentle breeze blowing past my face as I collect a rich, bronze tan. I can almost hear the seagulls fighting for my fresh coconut cup.
God’s sense of humor is rarely lost on me. Or maybe, just maybe, He tweaks His humor so it matches my own…so I will see Him in the circumstances. He answered my prayer and fulfilled my request. My VERBAL request was for sand and palms. He gave me more sand than I could have imagined and a variety of different palms. The weather is just chilly enough for the need to wear every layer of clothing I own. Instead of a fruit drink, I make a couple of cups of instant coffee to help warm up. Instead of waves crashing, yesterday the cold rain was beating on the roof which also means I have a hood pulled over my head instead of a floppy hat. The tan I acquired only a month or so earlier has nearly faded. No seagulls to speak of, just the sweet, resident yellow lab who stops in for a quick hello. And yet at the end of it all, He is still El Shama – God who hears. Not only did He hear, but He honored my request in full.
The beauty of it all is God has invited me to come to His land and follow some of His own journey. One thing I am starting to understand on a deeper level is He is a God of invitation. In the book, And the Angels were Silent, Author Max Lucado writes, “God is an inviting God. He invited Mary to birth his Son, the disciples to fish for men, the adulteress woman to start over, and Thomas to touch his wounds. God is the King who prepares the palace, sets the table, and invites his subjects to come in. In fact, it seems his favorite word is come.” Throughout the Old and New Testament, God calls out, “Come,” through a wide variety of creative measures. Jesus verbally spoke the word “Come” frequently during His time on earth. “Come to me with your concerns. Boy, do I have great, amazing plans for you! Come along with me!” And He does not stop there, He looks for ways to join us as well.
The longer I am in Israel, I am discovering deeper meanings to biblical stories, fulfilled prophecy and prophecy yet to pass. With my friend Dawn visiting, we took the opportunity to visit Bethlehem to see the supposed site where Jesus was born. A large church has been built over the top of the suspected cave where Jesus was laid in that famous manger. Since several religions and people groups are still rallying for the rights to the sacred spot, the church has literally been divided into sections for each group to worship and pray. They all have the opportunity to go down the stairs to the cave below and hold private prayer services at the labeled site of Jesus’ birth. When we arrived to the church, one of these services was in session so the door was closed to the public. Several tour groups from Singapore…I would estimate a “line” (probably the word “cluster” is more accurate) of one hundred to two hundred people were waiting to visit. With the help of our private guide, we worked our way near the front where we waited in a pushing crowd for nearly thirty minutes. When the door finally opened, chaos broke loose. We had to manage our way down five or so stairs with zero visibility because of the crowd. When we entered the small space, security barked orders, “Get down on your knees to see it. Get back up. Quick go over to your right. Now, get out! We have a private meeting and need to close the doors soon.” By this time, I think the doors had only been opened for ten minutes and we were in the small cave for less than three of those minutes. BUT, we did get to see where it is believed Jesus was born.
I did not have any major sentimental thoughts during that chaotic experience. Everything happened so quick; it was difficult to know what was happening as we were bumping into people and getting rushed out. As I have had some time to reflect on it, my understanding is growing deeper. Matthew 1:23 says, “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'” For me, that single verse sums up much of the big picture of this current, traveling journey. God said, “Come join me,” to Mary. At the same time, Immanuel was born specifically to join us.
Come join me and I will come join you! Aren’t those words what make the best kinds of friendships? Last year, I joined Dawn in Albania. This year, she joined me in Israel. Come join me and I will come join you! I have a great number of treasured friends who have joined me in my emotional struggles and in return, I have joined them in theirs. Come join me and I will come join you! This is the very promise I have received from God as I continue to trek life’s path with Him. He has yet to let me down. Come join me and I will come join you! This is the same promise He makes to every person on the planet. He is committed if we decide to commit in return.
And so, with Christmas on the nearly literal horizon, I will be celebrating differently than I have celebrated before. Nearly two years ago, God planted the invitation on my heart to “Come.” El Shama has heard my request and honored it in the unexpected place of the Negev Desert of Israel. And then, another of His many names – Immanuel, which comes with a full promise that I am not alone. Now that is a friendship I want to be a part of. Come join me and I will come join you!
Merry Christmas to you, my friends and family on this beautiful of celebrations.