There is not a person in our family who would not be able to recount our first Christmas in the Muslim country where we served. It was a very conservative nation, and we knew before we ever went there that the context would not lend itself to traditional celebrating. We determined early on to do all we could to make it wonderful for the family and meaningful to our Muslim neighbors.
We eagerly unpacked the more special decorations we had been able to fit in our small shipment. With great affection I placed the porcelain nativity-set characters on our living room mantle. Our Muslim neighbors' children eagerly helped us decorate our Christmas bush (no Christmas trees that year) with twinkly lights and the Hobby Lobby ornaments we had carted from home. They loved the occasion, and we were able to tell them why Christmas is so meaningful to us.
The best memory comes from the day our Muslim landlady came from her upstairs flat to check out our décor. Her lovely veil flowed from her shoulders as she practically glided to the nativity set, away from us into her own world of nostalgic reverie. Fatima* stroked the figurines while we watched from a distance. After a few moments the sweet vibrato of hummed Christmas carols made its way from her heart to our living room. We were all stunned; my husband asked her where she had learned the songs.
Fatima proudly shared that she had been privileged to attend a Catholic girls' school in another city many years back. The nuns there taught them about Christmas, and they sang carols at every celebration. Her schooling ended early; at age 15 her arranged marriage made her the wife of a decorated military commander. However, the impact of her brief exposure to Christmas lived on in Fatima's spirit. She loved that we were celebrating in her home, and she and her husband became our fast friends.
Had Fatima's God-ordained visit not already anointed our spirits with expectation and gratitude, we might not have managed well what came next. Our kids had to give up their pet Daschund when we moved to our new country. Like any parent would, we had promised them another puppy as soon as we could find one. It didn't take us long to learn that Daschunds were hard to come by where we lived. When a newspaper ad announced puppies for sale in another city, we parents schemed to get one. A colleague had even purchased a locally made doggy bed for the pooch that was to arrive by plane on Christmas Eve.
The kids were already tucked in bed when my husband sneaked to the airport to pick up a puppy that never arrived. Gut-wrenching disappointment settled in after we finally accepted that we had been shafted, and the only gift our kids would find under the bush on Christmas morning would be an empty puppy bed. Hindsight would reveal that it was harder on us than on the kids, who opened their stockings and drew comfort from the hope the empty doggy bed gave them. It somehow assured them that we would keep our promise, and that a puppy would occupy it soon.
The thing we learned about Christmas that year was that its celebration as we knew it had changed. The joy of Fatima's visit juxtaposed by the empty doggie basket shifted our expectations and somewhat prepared us for some lessons we would learn down the road.
We saw that Christmas would continue to provide venues for outreach. Frankly, it is not that difficult to celebrate Christmas in Muslim countries. Most Muslims are seekers of sorts; they love to talk about Allah, and their esteem of the prophets makes them somewhat open to the things of Christ. They love to share holidays, so Christmas can be quite festive and refreshingly engaging. However, to see Muslims come to a place where they celebrate Christ with us is a different matter. The price a Muslim pays if he accepts Christ as the Son of God is tantamount to what the Father himself suffered on the cross 33 years after His promising birth. Some Muslims who convert risk expulsion from community and very possibly death.
The ominous reality is that for our ministry among Muslims to be fruitful, no matter where in the world we live, we ourselves must be ready to pay a price higher than morphed Christmas celebrations or empty puppy baskets. We too must be ready to suffer the consequence of deeper friendships and true connecting — if reaching Muslims with the genuine meaning of Christmas is in fact what God wants us to do.
Recently, my husband and I were in Turkey, teaching a group of young house church planters that had traveled there from a more closed country for training. As it usually happens, ours was the calling that became recharged — freshly challenged by what it really means to celebrate Christ among Muslims.
I met a young lady there who is from that same very restricted Muslim country, but was living in Turkey. She was actually part of the leadership that put together the training sessions for these house church planters. Her family has known the cost of service for a number of decades. They have experienced imprisonment and martyrdom; Mariam's* personal sacrifice is one I learn from over and over again.
A few years ago in her country, she fell in love with a man who was visiting their church and professed faith in Christ. After they married, the community learned that he was an imposter who the government used as a plant to learn more about the workings of the church in that land. Things came to light after Mariam had conceived and birthed his child. Their impending divorce would cost Mariam dearly.
In Muslim countries, the children of divorced parents typically stay with the father; they are his property. Mariam's confessed faith in Christ made things even more precarious for her, since her husband's grounds for divorce and his claim to the child were based on the fact that she was a Christian in a land governed by Islamic law. Nevertheless, Mariam's case elicited huge sympathy from numbers of people, and even the Muslim judge that handled her case wanted desperately for Mariam to be able to keep her child. He sent word with her lawyer that if she would but answer the one question he would ask her with a "no," he would be able to award her custody of the couple's daughter.
Her court date arrived, and the judge posed the question to Mariam. "Mariam, are you a Christian?"
Miriam told me her story as we rode a crowded city tram to do some shopping at a local bazaar. At this point, I hardly knew what to say to Mariam. I pictured her struggle in that courtroom. I knew that she was in Turkey without her child, and I knew that she would never have denied Christ. I'm not sure if it was her pain that silently screamed on that crowded tram, or if it was mine as I felt God remind me that hers was the kind of commitment he had called me to as well. The joy of celebrating Christ with Muslims always costs someone something. My experience was that it hadn't cost me much yet.
We resumed our conversation after getting off at our tram stop. "Mariam," I was almost too scared to ask, "What keeps you going?" I pictured myself in her place, aware that the daily grief would probably cause me to fight getting out of bed most mornings. I knew, however, that Mariam was extremely active in ministry, compelled to reach Muslims every day the sun came up. Why, even as we walked, she nudged me and pointed to a couple of ladies across the street from us. "Myra," she said with words that acted like copious waters about to break through their restraining dam, "those two ladies over there — one got saved in church two nights ago, and the other is coming to church as well." She could not contain her joy. The girls looked over in our direction, and we crossed the street to greet them. They were giddy to see Mariam. We kissed and hugged and did all the magnificent gesticulating hysterically happy women in most places would do.
Understand that this is happening in broad daylight, on a busy street in this Muslim city, where the consequences for proselytizing and conversion can be stiff. The fruit was made sweeter by the realization that these ladies knew the hardships they would face for their choices; yet they couldn't help but want to celebrate Christ.
But back to the "what-keeps-you-going" question. Mariam looked over her shoulder, straight into my eyes. Her own were full of honest assurance. She paused long enough to reveal the pain she still feels, but her face smiled as she delivered her reply. "The Lord has told me that my daughter and I will be reunited. I am sure this will happen." I dared not doubt it myself. We continued our walk to the bazaar, where Mariam's bargaining skills weren't nearly as admirable as was her walk with God. We both laughed when her final attempt to get a better price for the coat we were buying was to tell the Muslim salesman that she was a Christian and she would pray for him if he gave us a better price. The sanctity of our previous moment turned to frivolous play as we paid the steep price and boarded the tram back to the church where Mariam spends most of her time.
And back to thoughts of Christmas and celebrating in a Muslim context. Christmas as a celebration comes and goes. But for Christmas to step out of the celebration and journey into the crux of real mission to Muslim people, the clinching requirement is that its carriers be severely committed. Whether our burden is for Muslims in America, Africa, or Iran, and whether we be women or men, if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the call, and if we are prepared to pay the price any Muslim would have to pay for his or her choice to follow Christ, the sure end of our passion will be Christmas for Muslims — Christ miraculously and completely embraced by lovers of God who have been seeking Him all along.
**Fatima's and Mariam's real names have been changed due to sensitivities that might put them at personal risk.