We stepped off the airplane and into a new world. A strange new world. As young missionaries, Gerald and I had arrived in Peru starry-eyed but with no cross-cultural training. We were eager and ready to connect, learn, and explore, but we quickly realized that we faced some serious challenges. First, there was the language barrier. Neither of us spoke a word of Spanish. We were on a large university campus, but there were very few English speakers and no one from our cultural background.
Weeks of flashcards and clumsy hand-waving attempts at communication slowly bore results, and we were learning to communicate, but somehow we hadn’t really arrived yet. We could speak and understand most of what was going on around us, but we felt as if we hadn’t made a connection with those we were working with. It was as though there was an invisible wall that kept people aloof. They were polite and courteous but reserved. We just didn’t know how to bridge the gap. We tried to be friendly. We invited people to our home to eat with us. Although they seemed to enjoy our company, we were never asked back in return. It seemed like a one-way street.
I remember one public holiday when Gerald and I worked in our small garden as we were respectfully greeted by people walking by, carrying delicious smelling dishes on their way to celebrate with friends and families. No invitation came for us. We went through difficult isolated months as we struggled with depression. We continually prayed for a way to connect.
And then finally we had some good news. After six years of marriage, I was finally pregnant.
We were so excited. On a campus news travels fast, and soon everyone knew of our good news. Not that we minded—we were just so delighted. And then around the fourth month, early on a Sabbath morning in December, I went into labor. I was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. We lost the baby. It was heartbreaking. Far away from family or any support group, we were really hurting.
A few days later I met a little old bent-over lady who lived with her children on campus. She didn’t speak any English, and yet she took one look at my tear-swollen eyes and came and took me in her arms and held me. Loss doesn’t need a translation. The pain of loss had united us. We had arrived. People opened their hearts to us. People hadn’t meant to be mean; they just didn’t understand us. We learned later that they didn’t invite us because they weren’t sure what kind of food we would enjoy and if we would feel comfortable eating with them in their homes. But our loss was something that really united us. Everyone knew pain and knew loss. Hurt is something universal. People around us knew what it was like to love and lose. In a strange sense the baby we lost became a bridge. We are grateful that God in His goodness has given us three beautiful, healthy children, but at this time of year I am always drawn back to the memory of loss, pain, and also connection and a loving embrace.
Now is the time we hear in the Christmas carols and the Nativity scenes all about the arrival of another little Baby—a truly amazing Child. This is the great mystery that we celebrate. God becoming a human being. I imagine that the distance between Planet Earth and heaven with its innumerable galaxies circling around it is a lot farther than the airplane flight that took us to Peru. What a mind-boggling mystery, what a miracle, this tiny little Baby that Mary held. Shepherds and Wise Men came to marvel over this Living Bridge. This was God’s way of healing the great divide between us and Him.
And in a very real way God’s giving also involved pain and loss right from the start. There were no cultural misunderstandings when Herod sent his soldiers to murder all the newborns in Bethlehem. From the moment of His arrival, Satan engaged in an outright war to kill Jesus. And yet this fragile bridge would prove to be so strong that even after 2,000 years nothing can break it.
I love the way Paul put it in his letter to the Romans: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, ‘For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.’) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow— not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39, NLT).* Absolutely nothing because God loves us. He loves us so much that He became one with us.
So as I look at Nativity sets and hear the echoes of “Away in a Manger,” I remember the pain of our loss that brought us close to our Peruvian family with ties that haven’t been broken in all the years since. There are still people living in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes whom I consider family. I know that we could ask for and receive help and support at any moment. That’s how it is with family. And once again I am drawn to the great sacrifice of the Godhead, the unimaginable pain involved in that Gift that heals all of our hurts. I am reminded that God gave His only begotten Son to be our Living Bridge.
* Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.