Rich Beyond Belief

We just celebrated an amazing Christmas...Robbie and I agreed that it's been one of the best ever. Even though we did not get to spend it with our families in the States, it was a sweet, special time with our own little family. I think what made this year so wonderful were the great opportunities we had to give. Honestly, I feel that some years it's easy for Christmas to veer out of control. Claire is the only grandchild on both sides of the family, and if we are not careful, the focus can easily become piles of gifts from our dear relatives who rarely see her. But this year we were able to be a part of quite a few projects that helped us stress to her the joy of giving.

I helped the ladies of Iglesia Bautista El Faro organize bags for needy new mothers who give birth at the public hospital. Hospitals here (even the private one where I had Claire) do not give out "freebies" like the ones in the States. You have to bring your own supplies: diapers, wipes, acetominophen, feminine products, etc. Patients at the public hospital even have to purchase their own IV bags from the pharmacy downtown. So we church ladies organized bags of supplies for the new mothers who arrive with no money to purchase what their newborn needs. It was a great privilege to present 84 bags to the maternity ward, along with a letter of encouragement from our church.

Our church people, young and old, gave toward a "Christmas Gifts for Christ" project that focused on two areas. First, they gave offerings to help build a fundamental church in El Salvador. Then, each age group was assigned a food item to bring to church for the offering. The little girls and boys brought dried rice and beans. The teens brought white and corn flour. The adults brought shortening and dried pasta. We put together fifteen large food baskets to take to needy families in our community on a special visitation, where we surprised them by singing Christmas carols outside their houses. Caroling is not a tradition in Honduras, but our people loved their first caroling experience! And Claire went right along with us, singing loudly at each house and shouting, "Feliz Navidad!" as we left.

Claire and I baked Christmas cookies into the wee hours of the morning to take to the families of our church on Christmas Eve.
We also told her she could choose one little girl in her class to buy a present for this year. She chose a sweet little girl whose mother had abandoned her when she was an infant. We took Claire to the store where she chose a beautiful baby doll dressed as a princess. I was gearing myself up for the "I want to keep her" comments, but they never came. She was truly excited about seeing Allison get her new doll. She wrapped it and placed it under the tree. When family members from the States asked Claire on the telephone how many presents she would have for Christmas, she always said, "One, the doll for Allison," thinking only of what she would be giving. I was so proud to see her little heart grow with love for others. I knew Claire would be opening her own presents, but thank the Lord, the joy of giving was taking predominance. When Claire took the doll to Allison on Christmas Eve, the little girl accepted the present then ran inside to place it under the Christmas tree; it was the only gift there. We were able to show Claire the joy of giving to someone who truly appreciated it.

Claire also chose gifts for me and Robbie. She was beside herself as I opened up a very colorful candle she had picked out--it looks like a big roll of lifesavers, but I love it because she selected it just for me. She also chose a red and white striped shirt with large, poofy sleeves because, "I want you to dress like a candy cane, Mommy!" I will wear it with pride.

I know some Christians adamantly shun gift-giving at Christmas, citing materialism and greed. But I believe gift-giving done in the right way can be a sweet, special experience; we just have to find balance.

Here on the mission field, we are surrounded by poverty and suffering. But we are also surrounded by stories of supernatural sacrifice, as new Christians who have nearly nothing scrape together what they can to buy a bag of dried beans to bring to church. One man whose flocks had grown this year tithed a sheep. No matter who we are or what we have, being a recipient of salvation necessitates sacrificial giving on our part. Our hearts compel us to give, and especially as we medidate in Christ's incarnation. I pray that the Lord will always help us to strike a balance in our family of giving. We've been blessed so much, it will be hard to keep up; but we are sure going to try!

Merry Christmas to all my Real Missions, Real Life readers and followers!

Through the Eyes of a Child

There is something about having a little one in the house at Christmas that makes the season magical again. It has been so much fun this December to celebrate traditions, bake favorite goodies, and sing old carols, because our three year-old daughter Claire is now catching the excitement. She oohed and aahed over each ornament we hung on the tree, examining them carefully with her tiny fingers. She squealed with anticipation when I pulled from the oven the freshly-baked gingerbread men that she had helped with. She belted out "Al Mundo Paz" ("Joy to the World") as she marched an endless procession of dolls past the manger scene to "visit with Baby Jesus." She carefully selected a doll for a little girl in her Sunday school class whose mommy abandoned her when she was an infant; she wrapped it, labeled it with a "C" (from Claire), and proudly placed it beneath the small tree in her room. She is eagerly awaiting Christmas Eve so that we can take it to her. And I've got to admit, I'm probably just as eager for Christmas as she is. I can't wait to eat our traditional big breakfast, read Luke 2, and see her open the gifts we chose for her. Seeing Christmas through a child's eyes has brought back a magic that I'd forgotten existed.

It reminds me of one of the most beautiful blessings of missions, one I never anticipated before arriving on the field. It came to me unexpectedly as I taught a small children's class during our first year in Honduras. Seeing quite a few more children had arrived than usual, I had asked a teen girl to assist me; she sat in the back and helped me quiet the unruly ones. But I noticed that during the story about the three Hebrew children who refused to bow to a graven image, she was listening just as intently as the children were. I explained how the wicked king ordered the men to be thrown into the fiery furnace, and a low gasp spread across the room. They leaned forward in their seats, worry on their faces, as I told how even the men who threw the Hebrews into the furnace were consumed by the flames. "But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not burned!" They smiled and nodded, clearly relieved; but their smiles changed to puzzled looks when I told them, "But the king looked up at the men walking around in the fiery furnace, and realized that there were not three, but four men in the flames!" I paused dramatically, waiting for their anticipation to peak before I continued. But not everyone could stand it. The teenage girl shouted out from the back of the room, "Well, who WAS it?"

What an awesome privilege it is to tell someone a Bible story for the first time! Those stories that I had heard over and over since I was a child became new to me again, because I was telling them to people who had never heard them. I had received the unexpected blessing of a second dose child-like wonder for what God can do.

On the mission field, we definitely miss being around seasoned Christians who are mature in their faith; I sometimes ache for the church family and leadership we left in the States. I know that one day we will have people like that in our church here; they have already made leaps and bounds in their walks with the Lord.

But even as we see Christians here grow to maturity, I pray that the Lord will always allow me to have the privilege of working with new Christians as well. There is nothing like leading someone to the Lord and watching them learn in awe of what their Savior can do.


I grew up in Sunday school,
I memorized the Golden Rule
And how Jesus came to set the sinner free.
I know the story inside out
I can tell you all about
The path that led Him up to Calvary.
But ask me why He loves me
And I don't know what to say.
But I'll never be the same because
He changed my life when He became...

Everything to me.
He's more than a story,
More than words on a page of history.
He's the air that I breathe
The water I thirst for
And the ground beneath my feet.
He's everything, everything to me.

-Chad Cates

A Christmas Caroling Adventure

Christmas in Honduras! Forget the turkey, piles of presents, snow, and Santa--those are American traditions. Here we have tamales, fireworks, and of course, the usual heat! But there are some things about Christmas that are universal. As I remember the great variety of Christmases I've celebrated, both near and far, one particular memory always comes to mind.

It was Christmas 1997. I was a senior in high school, and we'd just finished our annual Christmas Concert at Raleigh Christian Academy. I'd gone with a group of friends to Miami Subs afterwards. As we finished eating, we realized we still didn't have to be home for a few hours. What should we do?

We discussed a number of pranks on teachers and fellow classmates. But then someone suggested, "Hey, since we're all dressed up, why don't we go Christmas caroling?"

We stopped off at the Dollar Tree to purchase taper candles and matches, then excitedly drove to the first house. We arranged ourselves in front of the porch steps and began to belt out: "Joy to the World!" The family hurried to the door to enjoy our repetoire of familiar carols. This was fun! What a great idea!

We stopped at house after house, some family members, some church friends, to wish them a "Merry Christmas" in song. One of our last stops was Pastor Rabon's house. As we were leaving, our curfew quickly nearing, he commented, "You know, you should go sing for Mr. and Mrs. Thiede."

"Do they still go to our church?" I had not seen them in quite awhile. Don and Audrey Thiede were an elderly couple that had been friends and neighbors of my grandparents for years, but their health had declined greatly; they didn't get out much anymore.

"Yes, they still live over there on Folger Street," Pastor said. "I think they'd really appreciate a visit."

When we got back to the car, we discussed going to their house. "But we need to be home soon!" "Isn't it too late? They probably go to bed really early." Finally, we agreed to make the Thiedes' house our final stop that night.

A few minutes later, we nervously positioned ourselves in front of the front door and began to sing, "O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!" After the first stanza, the door slowly opened, and there stood Mr. and Mrs. Thiede, arm in arm. I almost didn't recognize him. He was pale and thin from sickness. They were both beaming however, and listened eagerly to the familiar carols.

As we finished the last song, someone shyly asked, "Do you have a request?"

Mrs. Thiede replied, "Would you sing 'Silent Night'? That's my husband's favorite."

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
'Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Mr. and Mrs. Thiede thanked us with tear-filled eyes, and we quietly left. How glad we were that we had stopped by! It was the perfect end to a special night.

The next morning at school, we excitedly told our classmates about our Christmas caroling adventure the night before. Then the bell rang, and we busied ourselves with English Literature. Toward the end of first period, the announcements were read over the intercom: Christmas parties, exams, special events. We began cramming our literature books into our bookbags, ready to head to second period. But the final announcement halted our hasty exit. "Please be in prayer for the family of Mr. Don Thiede, who passed away last night in his sleep. The funeral will be held...."

We looked at each other in shock. He passed away last night? But we just saw him! Our hearts were heavy for Mrs. Audrey, and we wondered how she was doing.

But as I reflected on that night's events, I was so thankful that we had gone to see him. I prayed that on his final night on earth, Mr. Thiede had truly been able to "sleep in heavenly peace" only to open his eyes in the presence of his Savior, the One Who had come as a baby for him.

The Outsider

Christmas at Grandma and Granddaddy Tippett's house was always a special time in our family. After eating a huge meal prepared by my Grandma, we would gather around my Granddaddy's leather recliner while he read the Christmas story from Luke 2.

Then we would begin opening the huge pile of presents under the small Christmas tree by the front window. It was one of those rare times my sister was glad to be the youngest grandchild, because she always opened the first gift. The rest of us grandchildren followed, from youngest to oldest, we girls squealing with excitement over the baby dolls Grandma had chosen for us.

Then we would scurry off to the next room to play with our toys, while the adults opened their presents. The older grandchildren were given the task of counting out all the coins Granddaddy had saved all year, and dividing them into seven piles, a gift to each grandchild.

As I think back to these long-ago Christmases in Raleigh, a face comes to mind. Mr. Robert Strickland, an older gentleman who was a friend of my grandparents, joined us for several of these celebrations. I never questioned his presence at the time, but years later asked my mother, "Was Mr. Strickland related to Grandma? Why was he always there at Christmas?" My grandmother's maiden name was Strickland; I figured he was somehow kin.

"I think maybe he was somehow distantly related," she replied. "Grandma and Granddaddy met him when he started coming to our church; when they realized he had nowhere to go at Christmas, they invited him to join us."

Mr. Strickland was a gruff old man with an abrasive personality that some found hard to tolerate. But he was always welcome at my grandparents' house and we just considered him "one of the family." There were even a few presents for him under the tree.

My grandparents, Elbert and Kathryn Tippett, had set a beautiful example for me of what Christmas is really about. So many times we think Christmas is simply about being with family.

But what about those who have no family to be with during the holidays?

In 2005, Robbie and I spent our first Christmas away from family; we had arrived in Honduras as missionaries early that year. Eager to celebrate, I bought decorations, played Christmas music, and decorated cookies; but with temperatures in the 90s, no parties to go to, and the house empty, it just didn't feel like Christmas. After a simple program at church on Christmas Eve, the Alvarado family invited us and our missionary partners the Goinses to their home. "Are you sure?" we asked them. We didn't want to impose.

The Alvarado Family

"Oh, please come!" they insisted.

As we awkardly sat down in the tiny living room with its concrete floor, we listened to the kids laughing outside the door lighting sparklers and firecrackers, a Honduran Christmas Eve tradition. We were given shredded chicken sandwiches, with apologies that it was a simple fare. "No, this is great!" we insisted. The family squeezed in among us, some perching on the arms of tattered furniture, others choosing to sit on the cold floor. We laughed and chatted easily, with small brown children and the lucky chickens that had escaped the hatchet wandering under our feet.

As I looked around the room, I finally felt that familiar warmth I had been craving. Now it feels like Christmas! This time I was Robert Strickland, an outsider who had been taken in. But Christmas is just not about being with your family. It's about celebrating our Savior's birth. As I gazed on the smiling faces of my Honduran brothers and sisters, I knew the reason we had gathered together. That tiny baby in the manger had come to save us all from our sins. Most of them were celebrating their first Christmas as believers; the joy in our hearts was the same.

And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. -I John 4:14

A Life with a Purpose: Oscar's Story

A tiny newborn lay discarded among banana peels and milk cartons, struggling for breath inside a plastic bag. His mother had lost her mind and decided to kill the baby boy; she would die days later from loss of blood. His father, an orange peddler, found the infant, and took him to the woman he was currently living with so that she could care for him.

Oscar was raised in a home full of wickedness and sorrow. His father eventually left and set up a shack, squatting on a piece of land near the hospital where he would push a cart to sell oranges each day. Oscar would bike the five miles to visit his father and look for work. He was greatly disturbed by the crime and evil he saw daily: people robbed at gunpoint for cell phones and pocket change, girls beaten and raped, angry quarrels ending in bloodshed. In anger and desperation, he purchased a gun, which he hid in his room while he plotted. He decided to form a posse of teens to rid El Progreso of crime. His plan was to find thieves and gang members and kill them execution-style in order to bring safety back to the city.

One day while he was looking for work, he noticed that an American couple had moved into a house near the hospital. He inquired there about work, and the man hired him to cut the lawn one day. Although he was at first frustrated by the foreigners insistence that he pay attention to detail and leave the yard clean and neat, Oscar soon learned how to pass the “inspections” and was able to earn good pay each week. He got to know Pastor Robbie and his wife Christine; they fed him lunch and made small talk with him when he finished the yard. One day, Pastor Robbie sat down and explained to Oscar that he was a sinner and needed to trust the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive his sin and be his Savior. Oscar listened with interest. He admitted that he did indeed have a sin problem, but was not willing to trust Christ. He already had his own secret plan for justification: become a vigilante. He shook his head and told Pastor Robbie, “No, not for me.”

It took four years for Oscar to finally realize that he was as wicked as those he plotted to kill. After washing the pastor’s truck one morning, he sat down on the front porch with Robbie and talked of his need to trust Christ. He bowed his head and repented of his sins, trusting Christ alone to save him.

Excited to grow in his new faith, Oscar began taking the one-on-one discipleship course with Nathan Massey, his youth pastor. As he began to grow, he realized he needed a place to serve. He joined the church’s set-up crew, now arriving on his bike an hour before each service to arrange chairs, sound equipment, and furniture on the outdoor porch where we hold our services. After the porch is ready for service, he hops on a bus and assists the driver in maintaining order on the route. When he gets back to church, he dons his usher badge and greets people at the door as they arrive.

The baby who once lay dying in a trash heap is now a young man serving the Lord in every way he can. Oscar recently testified in a Wednesday night prayer meeting, “I thought I could change Progreso by violently ridding the city of evildoers; but then I realized the only way to change Progreso is by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He is the only One who can truly change a life.”

Are you thankful for what the Lord has given you? Take a tour of what has been Oscar's father's home for the past twenty years:

Oscar enters the land where his father lives as a squatter.

The make-shift shack where he keeps his belongings.

Oscar's dad's kitchen

Oscar's dad's bed

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