A Christmas Story

Once I heard two teenagers discussing, “so what was your favorite Christmas?”  I avoided laughing, but only barely.  After all, they didn’t have many to pick from.

But perhaps with several dozen Christmases under your ever-widening belt the question becomes more meaningful.

In December of 1981 I was 29 years old, working in Dallas.  My wife and I had four children, the oldest in kindergarten, with #5 on the way.  We were struggling, but all our friends were too.  No big deal.

We got a call from church.  There was a new family that had just arrived, the Liu’s.  They were from Taiwan.  They had come for a job that was just beginning.  There were four of them; mom, dad, and a three year old daughter and newborn son.  Dad and Mom spoke a little English, and that was it.  They were living in a house with no furniture.  Sleeping in sleeping bags.  It was Christmas.  Could we help?

Sure, why not?  We drove over with our kids.  We wondered how our three-year old daughter would play with a child who couldn’t speak English.   Perfectly fine, as it turned out.  Within twenty minutes Tsu Chi and our Sarah were happily playing with Sarah’s dolls.  There was a Mommy and a Daddy, and two kids.   You could tell from the girls’ faces it was a happy family.

On another visit we brought the Liu’s a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and we all strung popcorn and cranberries to decorate it.   We asked our two oldest kids to find a toy or two they’d be willing to give up that we could wrap as presents for Tsu Chi and her brother so they’d have something under the tree.  Barb and I chipped in a few gifts of our own.  Others donated a chair here, a table there, and a bed to get mom and dad up off the floor.

Then disaster struck.  The newborn boy became sick, sick enough to be hospitalized.  I got another phone call.  Could I come down to the hospital for a brief prayer service for the boy, who was now in a pressurized air chamber in the ICU?

It was just the dad and myself.  He prayed in Mandarin, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but did. Sure, I knew that God understood English, but Mandarin?   For me it was a moment when intellectual understanding gave way to a deeper knowledge, as I felt the love God had for all His children, no matter what language they speak in this struggling world.

Time passed.  The infant boy recovered.  Christmas came and went.  The Huston’s moved on to greener pastures.  But we sometimes reminisced with our oldest children about the Christmas when they gave some of their toys to the Liu’s, and how much fun a couple of three-year-old girls can have playing together without the bother of words.

Thirty-five years later Barb and I happened to be back in Dallas, and through an odd coincidence we saw the mom–Susan Liu.  When she realized who we were she threw her arms around us and wept with joy.

All the children in the Liu family were now grown with children of their own, all well-established with bright prospects in America.  But that afternoon we learned that every Christmas throughout their family the grandchildren were taught with reverence about Grandma and Grandpa’s first Christmas in America, and the family that came with a tree, and popcorn and cranberries, and used toys wrapped in shiny paper, and how together Tsu Chi and the American girl  happily played without words.  Every year the story was told, and the debt to the long-gone family was renewed, and the charge given to repay the debt with kindness to others, and that every member of the family was to be part of the payment of that debt, from now until forever.

Fortunately, we had the good sense not to tell them that it was nothing, no big deal, etc.  Cartoonist Scott Adams once said “there is no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

Anyway, that was our favorite Christmas.  Thinking of it now reminds me of how easily we could have done nothing at the time.  The thought scares me.  The line between kindness and indifference is so extraordinarily thin.


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