You can order copies of 5 or more Twas the Night: A Christmas Collection by contacting me directly. The price of $8 per copy does not include delivery via UPS.
Two new items will soon appear on this page. I’m excited to report that a re-print of my Christmas stories will be available as a Kindle version and a paperback version. Twas the Night: A Christmas Collection includes three new stories and a special offer for churches and Christian schools.
No Ordinary Joe: The Mentorship Principles of Barnabas is available by following links on this page. This book is a tribute to those who invested in my life, as well as a study of how ordinary individuals can make an extra-ordinary impact upon the world. To purchase a Kindle or paperback version, go to Amazon.com.
Check my latest blog posting.
Each year I write a story for our family’s Christmas celebration. This year I took information from several historical documents of the Mennonites that came to the Kitchener / Waterloo Region, and wrote a historic piece that describes the newcomers (English and Scottish) that were coming into the region around the time of the two crop failures of 1816 and 1817. At this time many of the Mennonites returned to Pennsylvania, but two leaders stood out as community builders and bridged the cultures of the groups. Their willingness to reach outside of their immediate culture and be inclusive is what I try to capture in this story.
CHRISTMAS COMES TO SCHNEIDER’S HOUSE
“You have come at a very busy time of year, my friend.” Joseph Schneider looked over a split-rail fence as he acknowledged the presence of his friend, Pastor George Erb. “The English and Scottish newcomers are all scrambling to finish up their houses before winter sets in, and we can’t keep up with the supply of lumber they need.”
“That must be good for your business,” replied the older Mennonite clergyman. “I see that you have a number of the Waterloo boys working for you. How many of them are under your employ?”
“There are two of the Schneider nephews, and one of the Bauman cousins. I’m thinking of hiring another teamster to deliver the lumber to the homesteads of these settlers. They are so busy building their houses that they don’t have time to come into town. They all want to have their home set up by Christmas, and that’s only a couple of weeks from now.”
“Those boys, they are good workers, yes?” Pastor Erb probed. “You would hardly know that we are in the middle of hard times.”
“Well, I couldn’t have finished building my house without the mill and without their help. They’re my best workers ever since they came back from the war. I know we’re not supposed to see any good in war, but it taught them to work hard and obey orders.” Joseph Schneider finished sawing a burl from a rough piece of lumber that rested against the fence.
“And they learned how to get along with the auslanders – the English. They have some things to teach us about dealing with our newcomers.” Erb helped his friend lift the lumber into a wagon. “That’s why I have come to talk to you.”
“I thought you came to see my surprise. Remember, last week at church? I told you I had something that only you could see, and I think you will be quite pleased with my special offering. We all need to keep our hope alive, don’t we?”
“Keeping hope alive has been difficult, especially this year.” Erb wiped his brow. “The summer of 1816 will be remembered for many things – frost on the first of June, another frost in July, and two in August. The crops never had a chance. How many of our people have returned to Pennsylvania, just in the last months?”
“Just from the Schneider clan, at least three families. They gave up when they saw us wearing winter jackets at harvest time. They’ve only experienced the last two summers and I think they saw this place as uninhabitable and hostile. The thought of another cold winter was too much for them.” Schneider started towards the barn, followed by his friend.
“Well, it will be cold this winter, there is no doubt. What do they expect? We live in Upper Canada! But that’s no reason to head south.”
Schneider stopped at the barn door. “I’ve spent too much time clearing the land and starting a life here in these German lands for me to think of going back. One cold winter won’t scare us away.”
“But at least you,” Erb pointed to the newly constructed farm house, “in your brand-new home, will not have to fear the cold. It is a fine house you have built.”
“This is what I do not understand about those who have gone back to Pennsylvania,” Schneider shook his head. “We have come to build a life here and we have been treated well by the Queen. We have this land and a place where we can worship and live the way our faith tells us to live. But to leave all this, just because of two bad crops! I didn’t travel those 51 days and cross the Niagara to spend nine years here and then leave it all. And what are they going to find in the new republic – What do they call it? The Union of United States?”
“But are you not afraid that we might lose our way of life – just like those who left for Pennsylvania are in danger of losing theirs? During the war the Americans talked talk about freedom and liberty from the English, but now they are pressuring our people to become just like them.”
Schneider cleared his throat. “The way I see it, we can try and run and stay isolated – maybe find a new place, who knows, out west or up north. But the world will catch up and find us there too. We need to learn to live with those that are neighbors – learn to coexist and live in this land.”
“You are right, my friend,” George Erb agreed. “The Lord has put us in a pleasant and abundant land – we should be grateful for that. But not everyone agrees with you or I about the way we welcome and work with those who are not German.”
“They’d better get used to it. This place will grow, and before we know it there will be a town here; then schools, then more people. You can’t keep our little hamlet – what did the Englishman call it the other day – Erbsville? They are naming it after your uncle,” Schneider smirked and Erb scowled at the mention of the makeshift name of the new town. “It won’t be a little German town forever. One day it might be a great city, just like any other European capital.”
“Oh yes – why don’t we just call it ‘New Berlin.’ The greatest German city on this side of the Atlantic.” Erb managed an awkward laugh. “You, my friend, are truly crazy if you think this wilderness will become more than a patchwork of farms and hamlets.”
Schneider grew serious. “No, I my friend, see this place growing – and I will be the one who supplies and cuts the lumber for those who come here to build a town. Then, no matter if the crops are good or poor, or if we have a rainy, cold the summer, I and my family will be blessed and taken care of. We cannot just hope that the crops will be good. We need to have other ways to make a living.”
“But we can’t all have a lumber Mill,” Erb interjected. “Farming is the only thing that many of our people know.”
“That’s exactly why I asked you to come,” Schneider said with a wink. “Come, see my new business venture.” He opened the door, which squeaked on it’s rough hinges.
As soon as the door opened, a large horse bolted to the front of its pen, snorting and making its displeasure known. It was a giant of a beast, standing eighteen hands tall. Erb was startled by the advance of the horse and stepped back.
“What is this?” Erb asked. “What breed is this and where did you find a horse like this?”
“This is a Brabant,” Schneider explained. “It is a draft horse that comes from Belgium. This gentle giant belongs to the Englishman, Mr. Henry.” He slipped an apple from his pocket and offered it to the massive, beige steed. The horse gingerly took the apple from his hand and gobbled it down in a single motion.
“And this horse, he is now yours?”
“No, no.” Schneider shook snow from his boots. “Some of the English and Scottish do not have money to pay for the lumber they need, so we have done a little trade. I have this horse for three weeks, then it will go back to the Henry farm. He has a team of four Belgiums.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Erb stretched a hand nervously toward the snout of the massive stud. “Is this a payment for the lumber he bought from you? How can the man live if you have taken his horse?”
“This horse,” Schneider explained, “is very valuable – much more than the lumber I cut for Mr. Henry. My plan is to breed this horse with some of my mares, and he agreed to let me use his best horse to help build my herd. Henry will get one colt for every four that are born to my mares. The stud goes back as soon as my mares are bred.”
“And why did you want me to see this?”
“Well, Pastor Erb, I know you need a good horse. You have a mare that could be bred, and with any luck, you might get twin foals. I’d like you to bring your horse here for a week.”
“That is very kind, but what will the other people at church say? This is a very expensive horse and not everyone thinks that we should have dealings with the English.”
“Like I said,” Schneider explained, “we need to learn to live with these people.”
“And that’s why I came to see you,” George Erb watched as Schneider finished feeding the Belgium a bucket of oats. “When you spoke at church on Sunday, you seemed to have a good idea about how to welcome the new settlers.”
“I know everyone doesn’t agree with me, but should we not work hard and do a good job, no matter if it is for one of our own people, or for the newcomers? I think we should look at more than just farming. These English and Scots – they are willing to pay us good money for our lumber and we shouldn’t think twice about working for them. Their money is just as good as our money or the banks of York and Niagara.”
George Erb, to Schneider’s surprise, seemed to agree. “Well, yes – and even more than having them as our customers. These people will soon be here with their families, and children, and schools, and what-not.”
Schneider closed the door to the barn and invited Erb to follow him towards the house. “Have the newcomers as more than just our customers? But you know that the English and the Scots, they are a very peculiar people. What does the church have to say about that?”
“We are called to be a separate people,” Erb explained. “But I know it from speaking to some that there are God-fearing people among them. Mr. Henry says that he is a devout Anglican. The Scottish all seem to be Presbyterians, whatever that is. There are some Catholics too, but each one seems to have an understanding about God. What do you know about them?”
Schneider smirked. “Well, that Scot – Duncan MacDonald – You know who I’m talking about?”
Erb nodded in agreement. “Yes, I know him, but …”
“Well, I’d say he’s more about the scotch than the Presbyterian, if you know what I mean?” Schneider pretended to be taking a drink from a bottle.
Erb rolled his eyes. “Yes, there are some peculiar characters, but they are coming and buying the land from our people who are returning to Pennsylvania. Do you know how many families have come this year? We must have nearly one hundred-fifty people living on this side of the Grand River, don’t you think?”
Schneider stopped and counted in his head. “There are two or three Scottish families, and there must be at least another five families that are English.”
“And they all have children, right? They will soon build a school, right?”
“Yes, but what are you …”
George Erb interrupted Joseph Schneider before he could complete his sentence. “I was thinking. What if we had a special Christmas program for those families? We all celebrate Christ’s birth and who doesn’t like a Christmas program?”
“A Christmas program?” Schneider chuckled. “We will have a Christmas program with the auslanders? In our church?”
“No, no! I don’t think our people are ready for that. But what if …” George looked up towards the new, white house, sitting atop the knoll nearby.
“You can’t be thinking that … Here? My Barbara would never,” Schneider was flustered. “Why here?”
George Erb cleared his throat and began his memorized speech. “If we first had something at a home – a fine home, like this one – it would be a friendly gathering and not a formal church service. It wouldn’t be so strange for them.”
“So strange for them?” Schneider objected. “I’m already in trouble for dealing with the newcomers in my business, but if we have them in our home, what will our own Mennonite people think? And I’m sure that we would have this “gathering” in English, yes?”
“That’s another reason why it’s best not to do this at the church; many of our own people only speak German and they might not understand.”
“Most of our people wouldn’t understand – some barely know enough English to buy a sack of grain.”
Schneider scowled, but Erb continued. “Speaking of grain – we have to have food. You cannot have a Christmas gathering and not have food.”
Joseph Schneider was not convinced. “And what would we do at this Christmas program?”
“Why, we can have some Christmas singing – I’m sure that there are some songs that we have that are translated. Don’t we?”
Once again, Schneider tried to plead his case. “If we have singing we should be in the church? Why here?”
“Because you know them,” Erb countered. “And they know you and trust you. And beside all of that, you have this lovely home.”
The two men approached the steps of the house. “The home of Joseph Schneider. I can hear the people at church. saying, ‘It’s the place where it all started: First they came singing, and before you know it they were eating, and drinking and dancing and …’”
“All I said is that we should have some Christmas music …”
Schneider opened the door for his friend. “And food! Don’t forget the food.”
George Erb agreed. “Yes, food! Perhaps your Barbara can make those little, sprinkled Christmas cookies, and my Ana, she could make her kuchen …”
Schneider sighed deeply. “We’re going to have them to our home and give them our finest food, yes?” He gestured towards a chair at the kitchen table. “Please, have a seat. I think Barbara has made some tea.”
Erb pulled up a chair and sat down. “Yes – remember, we are to love our neighbor, just as we love ourselves. It was part of my sermon, just last week. Do you remember?”
“But I also think you said that we’re also supposed to be wise as serpents …”
“… and harmless as doves,” Erb quickly added. “Don’t forget that part.”
Schneider poured a cup of tea and offered it to his friend. “I have no problems with working and being paid by these people, but what does this all have to do with Christmas? Why is it so important for us to welcome these newcomers as anything more than customers?”
“You know the scripture, brother,” Schneider shifted to his pastor’s voice. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son …”
“Pastor! You don’t need to preach to me,” Schneider objected.
Erb pretended that he didn’t hear his parishioner’s plea. “And our Saviour, when he came, there was no room for Him in the inn, so he was born in a stable and laid in a manger. He came to a world as a stranger – like an auslander! Look how they treated Him!”
Just at that moment, Catherine, Schneider’s eldest daughter came in. She stopped at the entrance to the kitchen, realizing that the men were in the middle of a serious conversation. She stood silently and watched as they continued.
“Pastor! You don’t need to remind me of these things.” Joseph Schneider was surprised at the sharp tone of his voice.
Erb also backed down, noticing the surprised look on Catherine’s face. “No, I do not need to preach anymore. But I do need your help, Joseph. Our people need to see these newcomers as more than an intrusion, or even as our customers. We need, like you say, to learn to live with them and build a community where we can all thrive. Maybe there is something we can do to show them the love of God. Is there a better time for us all to start then at Christmas?”
Schneider took a long sip from his teacup. “You said that God loved the world, right?”
Erb nodded in agreement. “All the world. The English, the Scots, and the Germans. He loves everybody, even those we might not want to love.”
Joseph looked towards his bewildered daughter and continued, “and when the Saviour came, there was no room at the inn for him?”
Erb followed Schneider’s glance, looking towards a less startled Catherine. “We’d be teaching our families and children an important lesson.”
“And we’re supposed to love our neighbour as ourselves, right?” Schneider glanced outside, noticing a sleigh passing by on the road in front of the house. “Like maybe, Mr. Murphy out there.” He pointed with a nod of his chin.
Erb smiled and chuckled to himself, “I think you’re getting it.”
“And you want us to have a Christmas program, right here at the Schneider’s home?” Catherine’s eyes grew big at the mention of the idea.
George Erb couldn’t seem to contain himself, “That sounds like a great idea! I wish I had thought of it myself!”
Shaking himself from a trance-like state, Joseph looked skyward, “I don’t even know where we could begin? What could we do? What do we have in common?”
George Erb pointed to Catherine, inviting her to come closer. “You have been working with the children to prepare for the Christmas Eve service, yes?” She nodded. “And you are a good singer, right?”
Joseph Schneider interrupted; “Yes, she is a very good singer, but do you know any songs in English? I don’t know if …”
Sensing that it was an appropriate time to speak, Catherine assured her father. “What about Stille Nacht? When we went to York last year, in the week before Christmas, I heard them singing that song on the street corners.”
“It’s an English song?” Schneider was curious. “I don’t remember that!”
“Yes! They call it ‘Silent Night,’ but they sing it to the same music.” Catherine started to hum the first bar of the tune.
“I love that song,” Joseph started to sing, sputtering as he tried to remember the words. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…”
George Erb smiled, his mission apparently complete, “Maybe we should listen to see if Catherine can sing it.” The two men looked at each other and laughed. Catherine sat, embarrassed, but willing to help with the newly formed plan.
The winter of 1816 promised to be a harsh, cold season for the settlers of the German Lands in the Waterloo District. A cold summer was marked by multiple frosts and a devastating crop failure. While many of the Mennonite settlers of the group were packing up and leaving the region, two men stood out as determined to build the community for their families; a place where they could practice their faith, and a place where the new English and Scottish families could also build their lives. It was a special time; when Christmas not only came to the Schneider’s house, but it also came to Joseph Schneider’s heart.
In past years I would write a Christmas story for my family. This year is no exception, and so with the help of my young friend, Philip Phiri, I wrote a Christmas story that includes some of his memories from Malawi, Africa.
Here is our story: The Insider
The lights across the river cast a beautiful array of green and red along the ripples of the Lilongwe River. Tropical rain pounded the surface of the water, but Stephen and a group of twenty homeless boys stayed dry underneath the Sir Glyn Jones Road Bridge. They enjoyed the glow and warmth of a small fire. He pulled a roughly woven wool blanket around his shoulders and tried to find a comfortable place to lay his head. It was Christmas Eve.
“There will be good luck tomorrow,” piped Jonathan, Stephen’s older brother. “The bins will be full of scraps and the maids will all be in a good mood. They will look the other way and let us take what we want. Tomorrow we will not fall asleep hungry.”
The thought was little comfort to Stephen. “I wish I was not hungry today! I wish we were not always waiting for and hoping for tomorrow.”
“You will see,” said another boy from the back row. “Even the guards at the golf course will be in a good mood. We will have good luck and make some good money.”
“I don’t want to go back into that river,” Stephen said. “Someone else can get the golf balls. There are crocodiles in that water.”
“You will do as you are told,” said Captain, the oldest of the boys. He lifted the blade of his panga, a machete-like knife with a double-edged blade. “If we don’t get at least 100 golf balls a day we can’t be at the gate selling them to the foreigners. You know the rules.”
“They are stupid rules,” Stephen mumbled. “Stupid rules made up by stupid guards who only want to get their share. Tomorrow I’m not going to play by their rules.”
“And then you’ll go hungry,” Jonathan punched his brother. “Now let’s get some sleep, before the fire burns out and the cold sets in. I’m tired.”
Stephen shuffled a piece of cardboard over a dry patch of ground, lay down and closed his eyes. He tried to remember his last Christmas at home with his mother. She was a kind lady, respected by everyone in her community, even after his father’s death. Why she moved to the capital city and married Mr. Big-shot, the name he and his brother gave to their step-father, was a great mystery. Mr. Big-shot resented that he must work to feed children who were not his own flesh and blood. The brothers were told to leave when a baby sister was born, sent away when Jonathan was ten and Stephen was eight. Two years had passed and they were part of the “Hard Core,” a rough band of street children known for thievery, their mischief and foul language.
The boys woke up to the glorious dawning of a beautiful Christmas Day. The rainstorm had passed and golden slivers of light filtered through the trees that lined to river. It was early and the birds were singing. A pair of storks stalked the banks of the river, fishing for their daily catch. The cool morning air would give way to hot, humid summer temperatures, building to an afternoon thunderstorm and evening rains. The weather pattern was predictable and the boys knew that they needed to take advantage of the fine weather.
Stephen bundled his blanket and few belongings and made a bold declaration. “I will not swim with crocodiles today,” he said.
Captain rose to his feet, his panga strapped at his side. “If you do not come with us you will have to find your own food and we will not protect you. Run away, now, before I kill you!” Captain reached for the handle of his weapon, running his fingers along the edge of its wooden handle. He looked like a lion, ready to pounce on its prey.
Stephen stood to his feet, ready to run if Captain took a step closer. Fear filled his eyes as he took a step toward the path leading up to the road. “I will go,” he said.
“Wait! What will you do?” asked Jonathan. “You are better off staying with us to protect you and provide for you. Where will you go, my brother?”
“I am going back to Zomba today; back to where my uncles and aunties will care for me,” said Stephen confidently. He did not know exactly how far Zomba was, nor if he could find a way to catch a ride, but he was determined. “I pray God will help me, for it’s a special day. Don’t you believe that miracles can happen on Christmas Day?”
“Miracles?” scoffed Captain. “Miracles don’t happen for boys like us.”
Two hours later Stephen found himself near the outskirts of the city. An elderly couple had pointed him in the direction of the M-1 highway leading out of town, and told him it would eventually lead to the road heading in the direction of Zomba. He knew that he needed to hitch a ride on a bus or truck that could take him the two-hour drive, but there were few cars on the roads and the city was quietly waking up. He flagged down a bus headed for Lake Malawi and Zomba, but the driver would not let him ride without paying the fare.
Stephen was hungry, and so he did what he and his brother had done for the past two years; he began to search the garbage bins of houses of the Magwere District. Stephen did not know this part of the city, so he watched carefully as he made his way into the residential part of the community, cautiously taking back roads and smaller streets to avoid any guards or police. The houses looked new and were all safe behind high brick walls. It was before 8:00 a.m. and maids were putting out the night’s rubbish in the bins. Stephen was certain that there would be some scraps for him to fill his stomach.
Stephen heard a commotion as he turned a corner, stopping to hide behind a mango tree. A security guard stood at an open gate, trying to hold back two large dogs that had spotted a rabbit out on the street. The large German Shepherd was tugging at the end of its leash and broke away, chasing the frightened animal towards the end of the street. The guard handed the leash of the smaller Labrador to someone who stood behind the wall. He took after the dog, which had now taken a side street and was in pursuit of its own special Christmas treat.
The guard, in his haste to chase the dog, had dropped a large, black garbage bag just outside of the gate. Stephen cautiously made his way towards the open gate and was just about to reach for the bag when another boy, about the same age as him, stepped out from behind the wall. He held the brown Labrador’s leash as the dog began to bark.
“Stop it, Beanbone. Stop it!” The dog settled down and took a position beside his master, keeping an eye on the frightened scavenger.
Stephen’s eyes grew wide with fear as he looked at the other boy. “I, I …” he stammered. “I am only looking for some food.”
The boy looked confused. “Why are you not with your family? It is Christmas Day.”
“My family lives far away, in Zomba,” said Stephen. “And I have no food. Please, may I look to see if there is any food?”
“What is your name?” asked the boy. “My name is Isaac.”
“I am Stephen.” He looked at the dog, which now lay relaxed by Isaac’s feet. “Did you say your dog’s name is Beanbone? What kind of a name is that?”
“He likes beans and he likes bones,” Isaac replied. “I’ve had him ever since he was a puppy and he’s my best friend.”
“I used to have a dog,” Stephen started, “but then we moved to the city.”
“What happened to your dog?” Beanbone’s head twisted as Isaac asked the question, almost as if he understood every word.
Stephen sighed and shook his head. “My step-father made us give him away because he ate too much food.”
For the first time Isaac noticed the bundle of Stephen’s belongings, and that his clothes were dirty and torn. “You don’t live around here, do you? Where do you live?”
“No where,” Stephen admitted. “I live mostly under the bridge with a group of street kids, but I don’t want to be with them any more.”
Just then the security guard turned the corner, struggling to control the German Shepherd that was intent on heading back in the direction of the rabbit. He noticed Isaac standing by the open gate, talking to a complete stranger.
“What do you want, boy?” he called out. “Why do you bother us on this day?”
Stephen took a couple of steps back as the German Shepherd now focused its attention on him, trading its barking for a low growl. Isaac and Beanbone stepped between the larger dog and Stephen and held up his hand. “Squeeky! You sit!” The dog obeyed reluctantly, keeping an eye on the stranger.
“His name is Stephen and he is heading to his home in Zomba. All he wanted was to see if we might have a bit of food.”
Isaac turned to Stephen. “This is Mr. Mdunwe, but we call him Walter. He works as a guard at my father’s medical clinic. He came to spend Christmas with us because his village is far away.”
“We have no time for him,” Walter said. “We must get ready for church. Your father wants to leave in 20 minutes.”
“I will get him,” Isaac handed the leash of the second dog to Mr. Mdunwe. “He will know how we can help Stephen.”
Minutes later Isaac returned with a tall, smiling man. His broad smile revealed perfect white teeth. “Isaac tells me that you are from Zomba,” he said as he greeted Stephen. “Our pastor’s wife comes from the city and she knows many people there. Maybe we can help you. Please, come and sit in the shade.” He gestured for Stephen to come into the shaded courtyard.
Mr. Mdunwe spoke up. “Sir, we do not know where this boy comes from. He may be sent by a group to spy out the houses in the area. They send a small child that gets pity when he tells a sad story, then he goes back to report to the gang and tells them about all of the things that are worth stealing from the house. I think he’s one of these “insiders” that come to do harm, not good. I strongly advise against this.”
Isaac’s father looked at Stephen, then back at his employee. “We will treat him like we ourselves would want to be treated,” he assured. “And it is Christmas, there is no better time that we show some Christ-likeness.”
Stephen followed Isaac and his father as they stepped into the courtyard, where they sat down at a stone table. Mr. Mdunwe closed and latched the gate, then took the two dogs and released them in a dog pen that ran along one side of the white, concrete house.
“Do you go to church, young man?” asked Isaac’s father. “We will be leaving soon and you could join us if you would like.”
Stephen looked at his ragged clothes and flip-flops. He shook his head and said, “I don’t think that I … I don’t think that I am ready to go to church. I have no good clothes.”
“You can borrow one of my shirts and a pair of shorts. And most of the kids wear sandals,” chirped Isaac. “There will be games and balloons and the Christmas pageant.”
“My father used to take us to a church in Zomba,” Stephen recalled. “I think it was the Prespitarian church, or something like that. I was very young; maybe 4 or 5 years old. I can remember that I was part of the angel choir.”
“Maybe you mean Presbyterian,” said Isaac’s father. “We go to a Baptist church, but it is not very different from what you are used to. If you would like to join us, you should perhaps get cleaned up. I am the choir director and need to arrive early.” Stephen nodded his approval.
“Follow me!” Isaac instructed. They entered a side building that Stephen assumed was the maid or servant quarters. Mr. Mdunwe watched from the side, keeping an eye on the street child’s every move.
Stephen and Isaac sat in the back seat of the family sedan. Isaac’s parents rode in the front, talking as they drove. Stephen marveled at what a little soap and a clean set of clothes did for him. He wondered why this family would show such kindness to a boy they did not know.
The car fascinated Stephen. He did not want to tell the family that the last time he was in a car was when the police caught him, his brother and one of the other gang members in a shopping centre after closing hours. They hid in a bathroom and waited until they thought nobody was around, but were caught by one of the security guards. They were shoved into the back of the car, driven far out of town, and beaten with police clubs. The two policemen left them and told them never to return to the city, but they were back with their gang later the next day, finding their way back by following the banks of the river.
The church building was a simple white-brick structure with a tin roof. Everyone was dressed in their best clothing. Most men were dressed in black suits, with a white dress shirt and colorful ties. The ladies wore bright patterned dresses and black dress shoes. Children were happily playing a game of balloon volleyball, doing their best not to stain their Sunday clothing. It was an African church, but Stephen couldn’t help notice that most people looked very distinguished, yet out of place, in their European clothing.
“My mother always made us wear shoes to church,” he whispered to Isaac. “That’s one of the things I didn’t like about church.” He wore a pair of borrowed dress sandals, and was much more comfortable. “The other was when the ladies always hugged and kissed us. Do they do that at your church?”
“I just think you better get ready to get your cheeks pinched,” smiled Isaac. “Everyone will want to meet our visitor.”
Isaac was one hundred percent correct. The line of ladies waiting to pinch and hug and kiss the children as they arrived was almost more than Stephen could bear. He wasn’t used to the affection and kindness. “If they’d seen me yesterday, digging for trash out of garbage bins, I wonder if they’d still be treating me like a king?” he thought.
The service lasted for nearly three hours. Stephen found it hard to sit still through the three choirs, but found the children’s Christmas play more interesting. He laughed as Isaac played the role of the Innkeeper, pronouncing that “there was no room at the inn.” The pastor promised a short message, but after the first hour people began to get restless. He spoke of all of the characters of the Christmas story, including the donkey and a lamb he called Eunice. Stephen’s mind began to wander.
And he was hungry. Stephen’s stomach churned and began to growl, and he realized that he had not eaten anything that day, except for one shortbread cookie back at the house. In an act of mercy, Pastor Milton set aside two full pages of notes, pronounced the benediction and blessed his congregation.
Most of the people made their way out of the church quickly, heading home to prepare a special Christmas supper. The children knew that they must wait until after supper to open their presents, so they were anxious to get the formality of the special meal out of the way. Isaac’s family waited, hoping to speak to the Pastor Milton and his wife about Stephen’s family.
The pastor and his wife were an older couple, apparently with no children. They smiled as they were introduced to Stephen and invited him and Isaac’s family to sit down. They listened to Stephen’s story, asking questions as he told them about his father’s death, his mother’s new husband, and the lives he and his brother led in the city.
“Did people call your father ‘Barney’?” asked Velma, the pastor’s wife. “I think I can remember a family from the Presbyterian Church that fits your description. He died in a train accident and left a widow and two small boys. That must have been five years ago. The last I can remember she left for the capital and people say she married a cruel and hurtful man. There was a brother named Peter, who I think still lives in Zomba. Could this be your family? Did you live on the road to Maganga and to Lake Malawi?”
Stephen looked, wide-eyed in disbelief. “I do have an Uncle Peter,” he said. “And we lived not too far from the lake. My brother and I would ride my father’s motorcycle and go swimming when he had days off from work. I remember one Christmas, even through it was pouring rain, we went swimming.”
“Tomorrow we plan to travel to Zomba,” said Pastor Milton. “We could give you a ride and see if we can find your Uncle. We could try to find your brother too; we have room in our car for both of you. Would you like to do that?”
Stephen couldn’t believe his ears and was speechless.
Isaac tugged at Stephen’s sleeve. “Now do you see why you came to our house? How else would you ever have met Pastor Milton? Who else but God could work such a miracle?”
Stephen remembered Captain’s words. Maybe God can do a miracle for a boy like me, he thought.
Isaac’s father whispered something to his wife. She agreed to whatever was spoken, and he rose to his feet. “We would like to invite you all to have Christmas supper with us today. We have been blessed and have enough food for all of us – and even an “insider” who sent to us from God.”
Dear Friends and Family,
One year ago at this time we were getting ready for Christmas, wondering if the persistent rain showers would eventually give way to snow and grace our Christmas with a white blanket; something that doesn’t happen too often in the Lower Mainland of B.C.
We also wondered what 2014 would hold, with the only guarantee that change was imminent. Dwayne had given notice to the Missions Fest Board that January 2014 would be his last conference and that they needed to begin to search for a new leader.
The prayer-filled process to work with the Board of Missions Fest and groups of volunteers to look for a new Executive Director was rewarded. On May 15, 2014 Dwayne became the “ex-Executive Director” of Missions Fest, passing along the responsibilities of this ministry to John Hall. At the same time many of you joined us as we waited and prayed that God would open a door for us.
We were just as surprised as some of you as to where we ended up. Some of the doors and connections with overseas ministries never did come to fruition, and other opportunities were firmly closed. By the end of May we were praying that God would take us to one clear place where we could be involved in ministry together, and that the open door would come soon.
That open door was Hazelglen Alliance Church, in the region of Kitchener, Ontario. They were looking for someone with a passion to teach the Word of God and a heart to mentor and disciple the many young adults attending the church (the region is host to three major universities, including the University of Waterloo). We visited the church in June and enjoyed the opportunity to meet the people and see some parts of the city and area. It didn’t take long and Dwayne was asked to come and serve as lead pastor of the congregation.
The months that followed were a blur, as we sold our townhouse in Surrey and moved across the country. We visited family and friends along the way, and were welcomed by the church in mid-August. We stayed with Dave & Mary Patterson, our new friends and board chairman, as we looked for a home. We took possession of our wonderful home in the SW corner of the city on October 1st.
Rhonda eventually found a part-time position with a company that works with senior home care. Kayla came with us and found it challenging to find full-time work, so she opened a pet grooming business that she runs out of our home. Brett stayed in BC to finish his computer programing course at Kwantlan University College in Surrey, BC. He’ll be with us for the Christmas break!
God has led us to a pleasant place. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know our people, as well as the city. We’ve already had family visits from Dwayne’s parents, brother and his wife, and Mom Hamm and Albert. We have a spare bedroom and a hide-a-bed for visitors, and look forward to hosting many of you and showing you around the Kitchener / Waterloo region.
Allow us to finish with some specific greetings:
To our friends and colleagues from Missions Fest Vancouver; we applaud the way you have continued to carry the torch and come together as many different local churches under the banner of the Great Commission. You have faithfully worked with John and new leadership to ensure that Missions Fest is a catalyst to spur churches and individuals on to do “greater things” in the wonderful work of the Kingdom of God. We thank God for our friendship and the work He is doing through you.
To friends at Peace Portal Church; we miss our times of fellowship with our small group, staff that we had the privilege of working with, and the many supportive and godly people that we came to call friends. You were our church home for nearly a decade and we thank God for you.
To our new church family at Hazelglen Alliance; we look forward to all that God has for us in the New Year. You’ve welcomed into your church family and given an opportunity to use our gifts for the Lord. This is a new chapter in our lives and we trust that God will use this time for a great harvest in this place, as well as around the world.
To family – thanks for your prayers and support through this year of transition and change. We cherish our times together and look forward to your trips “out east.”
And to all who read this letter – May you experience a truly joy-filled and Christ-honouring celebration.
As I write this letter we are once again in the midst of our Christmas preparations. We’re tracking a massive weather system that is coming towards us from the Gulf of Mexico. It will bring rain showers, but it just might turn cold enough by Christmas Day to give us snow. Otherwise we’ll be looking at a not-so-ordinary green Christmas in Ontario. Maybe it’ll help us to feel more at home!
Dwayne & Rhonda Buhler
P.S. Everyone likes a surprise at Christmas! Dwayne has posted a new Christmas story on his LukeFiveTen blog. The Escape takes place along the Hungary / Austria border in 1947, nearly two years after World War II. We hope you enjoy the Christmas Eve story.
Read the story at: www.lukefiveten.blogspot.ca/
Paul, in Philippians 3:14 says, “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” What is that goal? How do we know that we are getting there?
The goal is related in a previous verse, and is often stated in the simple phrase, “to know Him, and to make Him known.” For Paul this was to know the power of his resurrection and participate in the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3:10). It was something that he acknowledged was unatainable, yet a goal worthy of his efforts and attention. He was sitting in a Roman prison, an older man, when he penned these words. There was still something to strive towards.
This Easter weekend I am reminded that there are still mountiantops to reach; goals to strive towards. We can stand atop some of the physical peaks that surround us, yet there are still spiritual heights to which we must press on towards. We are not to settle or be content with our present state, but to seek the same power of the resurrection to keep us as we seek God in our daily lives. We press on – we look to new heights. We long to know Him deeper and experience His power and leading as we head towards the goal.
Question: Gold, Common Sense and Myrrh is a collection of ten short stories that all take place on Christmas Eve. How did that come about?
Dwayne: One year I was working on preparing for a class and a writing deadline in the days before Christmas, wanting to get things done so that I wouldn’t have to work over the holidays. My kids, who were five and seven at the time, knew that I was upstairs in my office, and Rhonda had told them not to bother me.
My son snuck up into my home office one afternoon and asked: “Daddy, why don’t you write something for us?” That year I wrote Woodcutter’s Tale and we read the story on Christmas Eve. The kids never forgot and the next year, as soon as we turned the calendar to December, they were asking if there would be another Christmas Eve story. There was no turning back after that, and it became part of our family tradition. We read Dad’s story on Christmas Eve, and then the biblical account on Christmas morning.
Question: In the introduction of the book you mention that living in a different country forced you to celebrate Christmas without all of your normal traditions. What was that like?
Dwayne: It was the first year we celebrated Christmas in Brazil. Rhonda and I were in language school and lived about two hours away from any of our missionary colleagues. Our three-foot plastic Christmas tree resembled a scene out of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and even though the malls had some decorations, we couldn’t quite get over Santa’s bikini-clad helpers. The sweltering heat of the Brazilian summer, combined with the odd smell of manioc flour fried in olive oil, garlic, onions, and bacon, didn’t fit our “normal.” It was the first time we didn’t have our family with us, and one of the times that we were faced with a deep sense of loneliness.
We found ourselves asking; “What are we doing here?” Answering that question helped us, because it caused us to focus on the why of Christmas, and not just the what. We were there in Brazil learning the language in order to be able to communicate the story of Christ, his coming to earth, and purpose to bring us back into right relationship with God. We found that once the trappings were stripped away, what we were left with was the story; and that was good enough for us to make it through.
Question: The stories take place in ten different countries. What was the thought behind that?
Dwayne: I think that it came about more by accident than a plan. The first story was written as a historic enactment. The second was written during the year we were leaving Brazil, and I wanted to highlight those things that my kids had grown up with. The third year we found ourselves in Mexico and it seemed natural to use the story to teach the kids something about the new culture around them.
As the years went along, it became a part of the fun of the story for the kids to guess where Dad’s story would be from. I’d give then hints and even promised a prize for whoever first guessed the location of the story.
The stories became a source of deepening my faith and personal understanding of the greatness of the gift of Christ, especially as I discovered more and more that when you strip away the stuff of Christmas, it’s His story that stands out. I found myself learning about the variety of traditions and the reason for some of the things that we do in our celebration, and found ways to include them in a story. The normal things that we do – like manger scenes and crystal stars – all have a deep meaning when you understand where and why they became a part of Christmas traditions around the world.
Question: Which stories are your family’s favorites?
Dwayne: That’s interesting! My daughter is a cross between Doctor Livingston and Doctor Doolittle, so her favorite has always been Puppies for Christmas; there’s just something about the thought of a Daschund running loose in a chaotic airport on Christmas Eve that she loves. My son is an adventure seeker, so he remembers stories like Danger Pay and The Refugee; anything where there’s a bit of action and the chance of someone getting shot appeals to him. For Rhonda and me, our special ties to Brazil and Mexico make The Miracle in Rio and A Piñata for Rosita our favorites.
Question: So … where’s this year’s story going to be from?
Dwayne: That’s a big secret! You’ll have to be at our home on Christmas Eve to find out.
Gold, Common Sense and Myrrh is a collection of ten short stories that take place on Christmas Eve. A part of my family’s Christmas Eve tradition, we traveled around the world, visiting a poor family in Rio de Janeiro and witnessing the kidnapping of students in an international school in Laos. The stories span history, going back to a missionary family in the South Pacific in the 18th Century and to the Canadian Prairies during World War II. The final story ends in Bethlehem with the tale of a woodcutter and his son as they accompany the shepherds to the manger. Gold, Common Sense and Myrrh reveals the wonder of the Christmas story, seen through the eyes of people from different nations and cultures.
I know of no better time of year to snuggle up with a great storybook than Christmas. Each tale in Gold, Common Sense, and Myrrh is worth the price of admission. Many of them will stay with me for life. I smiled, I cried, I thought. I sprained my wrist turning pages.
– Phil Callaway, speaker and author of Laughing Matters
These stories transport readers to another time and place, to cross-cultural experiences where they discover the true meaning of Christmas. They engage the imagination and grip the heart. Make reading this book a treasured family tradition.
– Grace Fox, speaker, author and national co-director of International Messengers Canada