Before we know it, Advent will be upon us. We don’t have all the physical reminders of the holiday season arriving here because we celebrate different holidays than Tajiks do. They do like to put colored lights in parks and restaurants year-round and due to the days getting shorter, we more often find ourselves driving home from somewhere in the dark during this time of the year so we actually see the lights. The kids call them Christmas lights and get all excited about them and we don’t correct them.
We have some really, really rich and wonderful holiday traditions here – so enjoyable that we actually miss Advent here when we are not here. Don’t get me wrong – we LOVE when we can celebrate the holidays with our families in the U.S. LOVE IT. But our holidays here aren’t impacted by consumerism or comparison or massively increased busyness. So we get to be more focused on the things we want to be focused on. It’s quieter and richer (spoken like an introvert, I know). We will kick off the holiday season with our Thanksgiving celebration the Saturday after the American Thanksgiving. This thing got established by the other ex-pats in our city long before we moved here and we are so thankful for the families that forged the way. Some years, we (I’m using ‘we’ to mean our extended family of ex-pats, whom we affectionately refer to as God’s Team) kill a turkey the day before our meal together. This is kind of sad but it’s that or pay an exorbitant amount to buy a frozen turkey in the capitol and, if I’m honest, we’ve all become kind of country living here. Emmett is more accustomed to this scenario than the frozen turkey scenario and he cracked us up last year while we were in the U.S. He asked us when we were going to kill the turkey for Thanksgiving and we responded to him, “Oh, we don’t kill the turkey when we’re in America for Thanksgiving.” He looked horrified and exclaimed, “We’re going to eat it alive?!” We had to explain the whole frozen turkey thing. We had a heart-to-heart about turkey meat last night with our friends and decided that this year we’ll just buy some of the rotisserie chickens you can get on the street. They are ready to eat, and honestly way yummier than the turkey.
We also dress up in costumes because kids love costumes and there is no Halloween-type of thing here. Everyone gathers around lunch-time and everyone brings a dish. Our dear non-American friends have learned how to make many of the Thanksgiving favorites and, in fact, have come to love Thanksgiving. Many years, there’s some presentation of the Thanksgiving story. If the families with older kids are here (the Wilburs) one of the girls usually organizes the other kids into doing a play about it. Also if the Wilburs are here, we throw in some Cinco de Mayo action too and they make a turkey piñata that the kids get to smash. We eat our big meal and hang out and chat, drink afternoon coffee and eat dessert. Many years, there’s been a post-meal talent show too. This year, we decided to close our Thanksgiving celebration by lighting the first candle of Advent.
That’s one of the great things about celebrating Advent here. That same God’s team joins every Sunday of Advent to light a candle, sing some carols and dive into what Advent means. We rotate the house each week and enjoy celebrating Advent as a big family. We finish Advent on Christmas Eve with a big God’s team party at our friends’ house (they make it so Christmas-y and nice!). We usually have a food theme like curry, Italian, your own nationality, Mexican, etc. We each contribute a small gift into the kids’ bags and each of the big people brings a gift for another big person (who they drew the name of back at Thanksgiving) and we one-by-one open the gift and guess who the giver was. So there’s lots of fun, connection and taking time to steep in what Advent really is.
We (meaning our own little family) had an unusual and early kick-start to Advent this year. Totally unintentional. Last week we had to get new visas again by exiting this country and re-entering. We decided to just fly up and back to Almaty, Kazakhstan (all in the same day). It’s only an hour and a half flight and both flying there and back are during the day-time. It’s really glorious, actually. You see some of the biggest mountains in the world from up there and Almaty is really pretty – green, mountainous, rivers, little lakes, and farms. Our kids are real champs on the plane. All the lines and waiting that you have to do before and after flying aren’t so great, but you can’t win them all, right? Well we did our up and back, witnessing a breath-taking sunset over those huge mountains on the way home. We walked into the arrival hall and took our positions – Rees to the consular’s window to get our visas, me parking the kids somewhere and filling out our immigration cards. The problem this time was that there were no immigration cards anywhere and the kids wouldn’t stay parked. They were crazy and, frankly, rude and couldn’t stop. I really have an internal battle during these times in how to parent out of my own deep convictions. My inclination is to parent out of fear-of-what-people-think and try to get control of the situation (or at least make it look like I have control) and make my kids make me look like a better parent (ie: sitting patiently and obeying me). God is really gracious to me in that the kind of kids he gave me first and second have given me lots of time to struggle with this and even grow a bit. So there were many dirty looks and threats but God gave me grace in the moment to take a deep breath, let #1 flee to her dad (who was having an animated discussion at the consular window) and hold #2 and #3 on the bench and empathize with them (“goodness, it’s hard being cooped up in places that aren’t play areas all day isn’t it?”) and elicit their help (“We need your help to finish strong. Go team Bettinger!”) and after a while we could proceed through the passport control line. We still didn’t have immigration cards but what could we do if there simply weren’t any? The consular gave us a few days short of the amount of days we wanted and wouldn’t budge on that, but it could have been worse. The passport control lady (thank God, she was so nice) asked us why we didn’t fill out immigration cards and we told her there weren’t any. A border control officer came, took our passports, and asked Rees to follow him. He told Rees he had the cards we needed and asked how much Rees would give him for them. Extortion is commonplace here but it gets tiring and is actually really complex. Rees asked the guy if he was from this country and he said he was. Rees said, “but the people from this country are super hospitable and take great care of guests and you are not doing that.” The conversation went on a bit (in Tajik, of course) and Rees said that those forms need to be free and he would not buy them. The nice lady decided to just stamp our boarding passes so we’ll have the stamp we need to leave again (lots of trouble when you leave without this card). We got to our car, and headed out of the parking lot the normal way, which apparently isn’t the right way anymore (the airport has been recently remodeled). Of course there was a police waiting for such a thing to happen. Rees was insisting that he saw no exit signs and nothing was labeled (never is) and the man calmly told him, “Come with me, I’ll show you the sign” which turns out, was right over the actual exit. You wouldn’t see it unless you were already going out the exit. So Rees had to give that guy some money (which is the “correct” response to the question, “what do we do?” just in case you’re ever in the area). Rees was not a happy camper. We had told the kids that if they could behave throughout our travel day we’d stop at the good pizza place for dinner before heading home to our town. I was talking to the kids about how torn I was about the pizza place because there were some moments of great travel behavior but there were also moments of terrible behavior. I told them how I was hungry and wanted a nice hot “real” pizza dinner and some hot lemon tea but that it wouldn’t be very fun to be in a restaurant with kids acting the way they had. Rees was already pretty convinced that sitting in a restaurant with them was NOT what we wanted to do. But in came grace because it’s not in our nature to extend it, we want to make the wrong-doer pay. But it welled up inside me and I saw those contrite faces who had sincerely expressed their regret and understanding and it struck me that the most redemptive thing to do was to have another chance to do it right. I also figured we’d all be a bit more reasonable with a hot meal in our tummies. The kids were thrilled at a second chance and we had a nice meal at the restaurant together. Yay!
We swung by some friends’ house on the way home to pick up something they had brought from America for us and we got caught up on their story (involving needing to leave for medical care and being given the run-around with passports and visas and whatnot). More highlighting of broken systems.
Once we were on the road home again (dark and late) a single word came into my mind: incarnation. It’s not like we were actually in glory (as lovely as the scenery from the plane was) and arrived in Dushanbe. But it is perfect love (not that our love is perfect – FAR from it, but God has shown His perfect love to us. That’s a grace for every day) that compels us to come back. It was such a good example of laying aside many of our rights to willingly walk into a mess where things don’t work properly and everything is infected with brokenness. It struck me how the world must have appeared to God. He existed in limitless perfection and wholeness but willingly limited Himself to live like us, among us, in Christ. From His perspective he saw glimpses and evidences of His Father’s perfection and beauty – like a nice passport lady, alpenglow on mountain-tops, friends who live in grace and truth when troubles are being thrown at them. But overall, things looked pretty banged up, nothing working as it should. It made me feel thankful that He entered the mess to give us a chance to have fellowship with him. If He had lived in Dushanbe, at this time, maybe we would have eaten pizza together and drank lemon tea, the fellowship sweeter as we savored a second chance.
That was grace right there. After a day of traveling with three active kids and being cranky and tired, to be stopped to consider the incarnation and the realization of being invited into it. That was a gift.
May He open our eyes to understand, deeper again this year, what His arrival in the mess really means.