Advent: “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event” according to the Google Dictionary. It’s the anticipation of the birthday celebration of Jesus that we specifically look forward to in December. I have always enjoyed counting down the days to Christmas! No matter how old I get, I believe I will always look forward to this part of the celebration.
But when you aren’t in your home country, Christmas may look very different than what you are used to. The normal decorations may not be available. New traditions may emerge depending upon what you have available in your new country and culture. For us, in Uganda, often times families would decorate with balloons and maybe a large branch. But mostly each family did not possess a full range of ornaments and a fake tree to pull out of storage each year.
For our family, advent meant two things. First, out came the advent candle wreath with three purple candles, one pink candle and a large while pillar candle in the center; and second, out came the wall calendar with a pouch for each day to count down holding a piece of the nativity scene. The nativity scene would be built one by one each day until finally on the last day, baby Jesus would be revealed and placed in the manger by use of velcro. Over the years, it became a bit worn and so last year I refurbished it a bit. These two things went with us when we moved to Uganda back in 2010. It was one of the few “normal” things we possessed for our Christmas celebration.
A friend and missionary colleague who currently serves in Uganda, Kari Segner, shared her creative ways that their family counted down by using activities and fun things to do. That set me to thinking of various things to do each day as part of the advent countdown. Depending upon your country of service, you may or may not have the same things available for crafts and activities. But being creative with what you have is part of the fun! Using some of my friend’s ideas as well as my own, I have created a Family Advent Countdown that I will share with you here. Each day is based in a scripture chosen by Kari and then an activity for the entire family.
Read Luke 1:26-28. Put up the Christmas tree. If you don’t have one, improvise with what you have. Create a tree on the wall with colored paper or find some branches. Diffuse Evergreen essential oil to fill your house with the smells of Christmas. (24 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 1:29-33. Make a Christmas card to send in the mail to a loved one. Use whatever materials might be available to you. Get creative with cutting out magazine lettering or drawing your own designs. If you mail them now, there is still time for them to arrive in time for Christmas. (23 days left until Christmas)
Read John 14:6. Jesus is the Way! Create a maze by hand on paper to trace the way or make a life-size maze for the family to find their way using boxes or furniture and draping blankets. Make it fun! Perhaps you each take turns making one for others to try. (22 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 1:34-38. Just as the angel visited Mary to announce that the Holy Spirit would come, add some decorations to the tree that might remind you of the angel or the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have any, you could look for the shape of a dove or an angel to decorate and hang. Perhaps you have glitter that could be added to the angel or dove as well. Again, be creative! (21 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 1:18-19. To celebrate that baby Jesus is coming, have a dance party to Christmas music! Find a fun stream on your device to share and enjoy! (20 days left until Christmas)
Read John 14:6. Jesus is the Truth. Play a game as a family where you have to give three statements about yourself but one of them is false. Have fun guessing one another’s truths and falsehoods. You might be surprised what you learn about each other! (19 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 1:20-21. Watch a Christmas movie such as “The Polar Express” and eat popcorn together. (18 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 1:22-23. Make snowflakes out of white paper and hang them in the windows. If you have silver glitter, it might be fun to add that as well. Again, be creative. Crumple up the left over paper and have a pretend snow ball fight! (17 days left until Christmas)
Read John 8:12. Jesus is the Light of the World. Darken a room and play a version of hide-and-seek where the one seeking has a flashlight. Make your own version of the game rules! (16 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:1-5. Create a scavenger hunt, sending everyone on a journey. Use items that are common and easy to find in your cultural context. It might be in the yard or around the house. End the scavenger hunt with some special family treat that you enjoy together like hot cocoa or surprise candy canes that you brought from home. (15 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:6-7. Watch “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” or another short movie that portrays the Christmas story. End with a family discussion where each one shares several things they are thankful for. (14 days left until Christmas)
Read John 10:1-18. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Spend some time talking about Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Then call a family member such as the grandparents together and wish them a Merry Christmas early. (13 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:8-12. If you have a nativity scene, bring it out now and place it in a prominent place in your home. If you didn’t bring one with you, be sure to prepare for this by finding a locally made one or make your own. You can find ideas online to make a paper one or one from wood yourself. (12 days left until Christmas)
Read Revelation 5:5. Jesus is the Lion of Judah. Make a large paper lion – remember this is just for fun, so it doesn’t have to be perfect – and play “Pin the tail on the lion” using a blindfold. (11 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:13-15. Play a game of “Gossip” where you whisper something in one person’s ear, then they pass it on by whispering in the next person’s ear, and so on until the final person must say out loud what they think they heard. (10 days left until Christmas)
Read Job 19:25. Jesus is our Redeemer. Play a game of “Jailbreak.” Ask the children to each find a personal object that they cherish and bring it to put in a box. The box is the “jail.” In advance (or while they are searching for their personal object) be sure to hide coins of varying values around the room. Then give them time to find all of the coins. Once they have their money, ask them to either buy back their treasured item or choose to keep the money instead. Explain that they can ‘redeem’ their treasured object by buying it back with their coins. In similar fashion, Jesus redeemed us, His treasured possession. (9 days left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:16-20. Have a Christmas carol sing-a-long or even go sing a few Christmas carols to a neighbor. (8 days left until Christmas)
Read John 1:29. Jesus is the Lamb of God. Depending on availability in your country, have a lamb dinner prepared. Or – choose to make sheep by tracing the shape from the internet or a coloring book. Then add cotton balls or glue on crumpled paper towels to give the effect of wool. (7 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 2:1-2. If you don’t already have a Christmas star on top of your tree, make one to place there. Or make a garland of stars to string above a window or on the tree. Again, glitter could brighten this craft up a great deal. (6 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 2:3-6. Make some Christmas cookies, choosing your favorite recipe if possible. (5 days left until Christmas)
Read Isaiah 9:6. Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor. Make an obstacle course and then blindfold someone. Tell them that they must listen to your voice which will guide them through the obstacle course. Show them that listening to wise counsel helps them find their way. Take turns and change up the obstacle course each time to keep them guessing and help them rely on listening to your voice. (4 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 2:7-8. Play a game of “Hide Baby Jesus” where someone hides a baby doll or something that represents baby Jesus and the others try to find it, taking turns. Or simply choose to play your own version of hide-and-seek. (3 days left until Christmas)
Read John 15:1. Jesus is the True Vine. Make a popcorn garland or use fresh plants to create a garland for the Christmas tree representing a vine, talking about how Jesus is the True Vine. (2 days left until Christmas)
Read Matthew 2:9-12. Make this last day special with something that is traditional for your family. It might be a classic Christmas book that you read together. Or it might be that you have a specific meal where you invite friends and neighbors to join. Perhaps you watch “Elf” or another Christmas movie together. You might even decide to create a new tradition based on something in your new culture. (1 day left until Christmas)
Read Luke 2:1-20 and pray together, thanking the Father for Jesus’s birth. Make a favorite breakfast and declare Christmas morning as PJ zone. Don’t forget the birthday cake! (Merry Christmas)
As you can see, creativity is key as well as availability in your country. But the main thing is to enjoy the journey together as you anticipate our dear Savior’s birthday, the birthday of the King! Whether you are in Uganda, another cross-cultural setting, or in your home country you can anticipate December 25th with the excitement of a child together!
If there’s one thing our years in Uganda have shown us is that trauma comes in many forms. The Trauma Healing Institute defines trauma as “heart wounds.” Heart wounds take many different shapes. Sometimes it is as simple as a transition, change. Someone dies suddenly, sometimes violently and too soon. Parents divorce. A thief attempts to rob you. Even the move from one culture to another can cause trauma, sometimes silently and surfaces in later years.
Reliving trauma also surfaces when triggers occur such as a similar sound or smell. Sometimes it is a person that looks like the one who harmed you. Other times it is just a circumstance that unexpectedly mimics part of the previous trauma. Trauma can even be cloaked for years and surface in unsuspecting ways.
As I reflect on the various events of the last decade, I realize that our family has carried more trauma than we ever expected. Leaving home, family, friends and all that was comfortable and known to us was just the beginning of the journey we have faced. We are not extraordinary people. Each carries his/her own experiences of trauma. Each time we share that experience with someone safe, we find healing a little at a time. This has just been our road to walk. Grateful we do not walk it alone, but with a loving Father who cares deeply for us.
My husband, Bob, has had a heart condition ever since the birth of our second child. The doctors actually think he was born with it, but it had gone undetected all of those years. Because of that heart condition, he is at risk for atrial fibrillation (a type of heart arrhythmia) which has recurred numerous times over the years. It can be mild to very acute, debilitating enough that he couldn’t function to do everyday activities let alone ministry and work. But until he had surgery twice, it was never possible to regulate it with medication. He always had to have a cardioversion performed which is where they shock your heart with electrical current in hopes that it will return to normal heart rhythm. I have lost count of the numbers of times he has had to have this procedure performed over the years.
When his heart went out of rhythm in Uganda a number of years ago now, at that time, there was no diagnostic equipment to determine if there were any blood clots in the heart. This is one of the biggest risks of the heart being out of rhythm. You see, one cannot have a cardioversion if there is a chance of blood clots. It would surely cause a stroke. One is put on blood thinners for 30 days before one can even consider having the cardioversion performed if you cannot rule out blood clots. That was one of the longest months in my husband’s life as his atrial fibrillation was severe. He could barely walk down the hallway from his bed to the couch. Even sitting up for long periods of time was exhausting.
But finally, the 30 days had ended. He was scheduled for the cardioversion at the place that was considered the best and most suitable place in all of Uganda. The doctor came in and explained how the nurse would give the fast acting medication to put him to sleep for a short while, long enough for him to come in and do the procedure before he wakes back up. He left. The nurse came and put the medication in his IV. He was not only drowsy but went to sleep rather quickly. The doctor didn’t return. The nurse didn’t return. I was still in the room. Finally, the doctor comes in with the nurse and fires up the machine that looked like it was at least twenty years old. He puts the paddles on my husband at the lowest charge. He screams so loud that I cannot imagine what is happening. I am frozen, astonished, and cannot speak or move. The doctor says it didn’t work and increases the charge. Bam! My husband screams even louder than the first time. The doctor says it still didn’t work, but he can increase it one more level. Surely this time it would work. Now my husband is groggy and you guessed it. Not only did it NOT work, but his scream is louder than I even thought possible. The whole time I am frozen and cannot peel myself from the wall I am leaning against. The whole situation is truly unbelievable for me as a bystander.
For whatever reason, the doctor didn’t come into the room timely and my husband was coming out of his slumber before the procedure even started. Now what I can’t even imagine further is that the doctor wants to do the whole process over one more time because the first three-some didn’t work. I protest and am able to somewhat coherently tell the doctor that there is no way he is going to do this while my husband is awake. The doctor assures me he will be asleep this time, that it is normal for them to react, AND THEN HE DOES IT!!! I am still in the room. He still yells, but it isn’t nearly as intense in its volume as the first round. And still. No success …
Now because we were in a crisis, I knew I had to hold it all together. I had to be available to help my husband however he might need me to. The next step was for the medical insurance company to arrange to send him by life flight to South Africa where he could get the help he truly needed. This sounds like a rescue (and it was), but not before an ambulance ride that was like a “nightmare from hell” on steroids. He arrived at the airport with intense chest pains just from the ride. No doctor or nurse accompanied us. He was strapped to a hard board in the back and I was given a seat nearby. Off we went with the ambulance siren blaring the entire way. I suppose the driver was being so unreasonable and erratic in his driving because he was in a rush to get us to the airport as quickly as possible. And in Uganda, cars don’t necessarily make way for a coming ambulance and the city is full of jams. That meant we were driving on sidewalks and medians along the way. But we made it, by the grace of God, and surely by the many prayers of His saints!
We were so grateful to get him into the small jet with both the doctor and nurse attending him. The pilot was upset that I showed up with a suitcase as he said I wasn’t supposed to have brought so much with me (it was the size of carry-on) and he wasn’t sure he could take the extra weight. He threatened to not take me with him, but then finally relented. It might have been the look of horror at the thought that I would be left behind. But I had to sit in the very back with the cargo and not move. So that is exactly what I did for the duration of the five hour flight as I watched the medical personnel attend to my husband well. Maybe you can imagine. Each step of the way, I didn’t complain. I was grateful to even be there. I had to be. This was my husband, after all!
Once we landed in South Africa, the care was extraordinary. The ambulance ride was smooth with both the nurse and doctor accompanying us to the hospital. In less than two hours, the procedure was done with newer and more advanced equipment. It worked the first time and his heart was back in regular rhythm (and I was not allowed in the room). He was more than worn out, but his heart was functioning normal again. Praise God! I cannot tell you the relief. But I didn’t really talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t dare let him know how worried I was or how much it was affecting me. I pushed it all down inside and pushed through to maintain stability at all costs. Now to help him recuperate and encourage him all the more.
But nowadays I realize this was traumatic, traumatic for all of our family. It was trauma for me to have gone through and witnessed. Trauma for him FOR SURE as it was his experience directly full of it. It was traumatic for our children as well who watched from a distance and likely didn’t understand completely what was happening. Traumatic for them as they were left behind when we flew to South Africa without them, and they waited and waited to hear if their dad was going to be okay.
This was just one experience over the years that our family has gone through. I don’t tell you this experience to alarm you. Medical equipment has improved in Uganda and it is even possible now to have the test that my husband needed back then. We have each utilized our own defense mechanisms to cope with the trauma. Like I mentioned earlier, each time we share about our trauma a little more healing takes place. I am not bitter about going through this experience, even the different traumatic events that we have faced through the years. I believe God means it to be used for good. His grace is truly sufficient for each of us.
But if you have faced some kind of trauma in your life, maybe realized or not, I encourage you that when it comes to your mind, share it. Find that safe person for you and share it freely. If it brings emotions, release them. Acknowledging it for what it is, now that’s the first step. But then find someone to share it with. Processing it through can bring you freedom from that which you may not have even known you carried. No matter where you live or your walk with Him, I am guessing everyone has experienced some sort of trauma. It’s very real. No one person’s trauma can be compared to another’s trauma as neither is the same. Acknowledge yours, find a safe person to share with, tell God about it, and encounter some freedom. Take that step towards healing from trauma in your life, whatever form it has taken on your journey. You will be better for it! And God will be with you each step of the way.
It’s 3 a.m. and I am just heading to bed. It’s been a long night. The boys have been preparing for their return to boarding school, packing and repacking, weighing and shifting their things, trying to make everything fit. Our trusted taxi driver would be here to pick them up just before 3 a.m. and we all needed to be ready.
But let me back up a bit … you see, this was the end of the holiday break and family time was over. Time to surrender the boys back to boarding school. It happens all too quickly. It’s just part of our life now, a cycle of seeing them and not seeing them. We try to make one trip every term to go see them, but it doesn’t always happen. They are just so far away and yet not so far. It’s an overnight bus ride or about eleven hours by car. Even if you fly, it ends up being a whole day’s worth of travel.
But boarding school has been good for them and we are convinced it is what God has for them for this season of our lives. It, too, will end … in time. We just try to treasure the time that we have whenever we have it. Our time together is often filled with movies, TV shows and games. Many times it is just being in the same room together doing our own thing. But we are together. We are family, after all.
But sending them off to boarding school at the end of this break is different somehow. It is our last one together here in this house in this country of Uganda. You see, the next vacation they have we will be packing up our treasures and selling off those things that we can’t fit into a suitcase or a footlocker to take on a plane. We have spent nearly a decade here of our lives. These boys have lived longer in Uganda than they lived in the states. It has been our home and so it was especially hard to have it come to an end, this last holiday vacation.
But the taxi driver arrived about 2:50 am, loaded them up and was off. So at 3 am, I headed to bed. I wasn’t sure if I could sleep but I would certainly try. The boys had instructions to call if there was any problem at the airport with baggage or whatever. My phone was on and the sound was on high, placed near my head next to the bed. Slumber didn’t come easy, but somehow I seemed to drift off …
But then suddenly, the phone rang. It was 5:55 am and it was my youngest on the phone. No problem with the flight check in or the baggage, but the immigration officer was refusing to let them leave the country! Instantly, adrenalin flowed what seemed like directly to my brain and I was more wide awake than ever. What could be done, I wondered … the immigration officer declared that there was no “entry” stamp in his passport from about five weeks prior when they entered the country which meant that he had entered the country illegally.
Now of course, our sons had not entered the country illegally. They went to the immigration window and handed over their passports when they had arrived at the border just like they were supposed to. Paperwork was passed between them and the passport handed back. If there was any mistake, it was on the immigration officer’s side, but there was no way we could voice that error in fear of upsetting the officer worse. I coached my son as best I could over the phone and just told him we would pray.
I called our trusted taxi driver to ask him to wait at the airport in case he needed to get the boys back. He was still there and no problem. In between thoughts and words, I continually cried out, “Please, Jesus, advocate for my sons!” I reached out to the rest of our immediate family (even though they were all on another continent in different time zones) and also asked them to pray! Then the phone rang again … it was my youngest son once more.
“Mom, he finally found an entry stamp in (my brother’s) passport and so he decided that he would let us through.” I uttered over and over again, “Thank You, Jesus … oh, thank You, Jesus!” As a mother there was little else I could do but pray (being 3 hours away) and the Lord answered by advocating for my sons!!! Hallelujah! What a relief …
Now you might be wondering why I would send my sons alone without accompanying them. You see, we do this every six weeks. Our boys are well versed in how to pass through the border and making sure they have all the correct documents. They are also 17 and 18 years old. They are young men. I also would not have been allowed inside the airport with them anyways and especially not as far as the immigration counter. But I would never have wished such pressure for them from the immigration officer! Someone else’s mistake caused a lot of unnecessary stress and an immigration officer accusing them of doing something wrong.
Now you need to understand that the immigration officer had every right to hold my sons and charge them money without allowing them exit from the country if he had so chosen. He could have continued to accuse them of negligence at the border upon entry and held them accountable. It could have cost us literally thousands of dollars. If he had done that, my boys would have missed their plane. They would have missed their bus on the other end. They wouldn’t have made it back to school on Arrival Day. It was no small thing!
After I hung up the phone, I cannot tell you how many times I thanked the Lord over and over again. I was so, so grateful! As you can imagine, it took some time for my body to calm down and the adrenalin to subside. I tried to go back to sleep and dozed in and out of slumber. Finally, about 7:45 am, I gave up and just got up. By 9:00 am, the boys reached the next airport and by 11:00 am, the bus had picked them up. They were bound for their boarding school and safe in the hands of a dedicated staff member.
I miss them terribly. The house is so very quiet without them … once again. I get to see them next month when I travel to their school for a special event. I cannot wait. It will be my turn next to cross the border and face the immigration officers. I will look at my passport closely to make sure no mistake was made. But I might miss it, too. I sincerely hope not.
Living in a foreign country that is not your own brings some challenges at times. But the call that God has placed on our lives in bringing us here is stronger than the fear of what might happen here. He continually demonstrates His presence with us here whenever things like this take place. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where He wants, at least for now. So we know that He will provide and care for us through whatever comes our way. And today, yes, today … I am grateful for that, perhaps more than you might imagine.
When we first moved to Uganda about a decade ago, I hadn’t thought through any changes that might need to be made in my parenting style. After all, we were the same parents, the same children, the same family. It didn’t occur to me that moving to a new culture might mean that I would have to adjust my parenting style. Besides, our morals and values hadn’t changed. Surely that would remain the same and there would be no need.
What I didn’t account for was the fact that I would be consumed with the details of learning to live in a new culture, adjust to cultural norms, and even just getting through the day would take so much energy! At the end of the day, I had little left to concentrate on parenting my kids well. I didn’t give much thought to the fact that they were also in a new culture and the learning curve was just as high for them.
When signs of stress started surfacing in my children, I needed to realize that my lack of care couldn’t continue. I couldn’t rely on past lessons that they had learned and habits that we had put into place. Even though there was some normalcy to our family life in the home, everything else was topsy turvy. Even our home life wasn’t quite the same as there were new schedules and ministry looked so much different now.
As soon as you move your children from one culture to another, they become someone new. Someone that they never were before. It can take one by surprise even if you are expecting it. My top priority for them should have been to help them understand this new identity, their new role, if you will. You see, when children move to a new culture, they readily absorb so much more than we adults do. We may take on some new aspects of the new culture and make it part of us. But for children, it is integrated in a whole different way. Deeper. Strongly embedded.
Missionary kids become “third culture kids,” as the current label is given. Once mono-cultural, they will no longer be that. They are now multi-cultural. They have their original culture (often coined as their “home” or “passport” culture) which has combined with their parent’s culture. But now there is a third culture that has come into the equation and it seeps in deeply, almost unconsciously. It becomes a part of who they are.
And yet they are not thoroughly this new culture nor are they their ‘home’ culture and yet again, definitely not fully their parent’s culture. It is as if they have created a combination of all three cultures into a whole new culture. This is how they have come to be known as Third Culture Kids.
It is an interesting phenomena to observe. When we would go back to the states for a visit, our children would gravitate towards the other missionary kids. It is almost like there is this invisible magnet inside each of them that draws them together. You could put 100 kids in a room with only a few of them being missionary kids. It would only be a matter of time and they would have found one another.
If you are a parent of a missionary kid, I encourage you to learn about what life is like from their perspective. Try to understand them. Ask questions and ask more questions. Then listen and listen some more. Helping them process through the unique gift that God has given them in being missionary kids is one of the best gifts you could pass on to your children. Help them to see that while their identity as a kid has changed, their identity in Christ has not. They can ground themselves in who He has made them to be no matter wherever life takes them.
One great book for parents to read and increase their understanding is Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds which you can purchase from Amazon HERE if you would like to know more about your MK’s perspective.
So back to my parenting style. Did I adjust my parenting style? Well, I guess I would say that it wasn’t so much that my entire parenting style changed. Rather, it became apparent that I needed to learn more about what my children were going through. I needed to stop and ask more questions. I needed to listen, listen and listen some more. I know that I didn’t do this perfectly. Perhaps I didn’t even do it soon enough. But I did.
And if you aren’t a parent of a missionary kid, I encourage you to pray for the parents that they would have wisdom to parent well in the midst of cultural stresses. Pray for their children that they would be willing to be open to share with their parents. Pray that the missionary families around the world would be lights to all those around them. Yes, pray. For only He could guide them well!