Missionary Christmas

by David Brinley

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    I awoke to the screech of the alarm clock, which seemed designed to double as an air raid siren in the event of a bombing. The man who had invented this clock must have been an electronic mastermind. He had somehow combined the gentle lowing of a disgruntled water buffalo with the cheerful melody of a less-than-well-oiled disc brake and five or ten of the world’s other most annoying sounds. My companion, whose hearing range automatically excludes the top 10,000 kilocycles before 7:00 A.M., had not stirred, so I staggered over to the still frantic clock. Then I realized that it was Christmas morning! All over the world, children would be awakening early and scurrying excitedly to the Christmas tree to find the gifts left by the traditional visitor. I silenced the clock and looked around. This was definitely not like the Christmas of childhood memory.

    I was in a small apartment, nearly 7,000 miles from home in a land where words like thermostat and central heating described facilities available mostly to the well-to-do. I dove back into my bed (a mat on the floor) as the icy bite reminded me that my pajamas were not constructed for warmth. There is something unsettling about seeing your breath when you are indoors. It does not conjure up the same feeling that one receives while looking at a cheery Christmas postcard depicting rosy-cheeked children with clouded breath, gleefully frolicking around a newly built snowman. No, this was quite a different feeling.

    I reached for the heater, trying to keep as much of the surface area of my skin from contacting the frigid air as possible. To my dismay, the heater would not light. Further inspection revealed the worst—no more gas! In our excitement and busy schedule during the holiday season, we had forgotten to have the tank refilled. Morning study would be held shivering under a blanket. My sometimes overactive imagination recalled a book I had once read on the Donner party, a group of early pioneers who had become trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter, eventually freezing to death. What a wonderful Christmas this would be!

    After a freezing morning study period, during which my toes and fingers threatened permanent inactivity, we sat down to a Christmas feast of mugi (a Japanese wheat cereal) and mizo (a soup made of bean curd). I tried to imagine myself eating roast turkey and drinking eggnog, but the consistency was simply not there. I tried to console myself with the thought that we were eating more healthy foods than Americans. No fat-ridden meats and calorie-strewn desserts for us! When I found that we were out of cinnamon and butter and would have to eat the mugi plain, however, all attempts at rationalization died. The Sugar Plum Fairy would be replaced by the Pickled Radish Ogre this year. What a wonderful Christmas this would be!

    At 10:30 A.M. sharp, as families celebrating the day were just finishing the unwrapping of gifts, we bundled up and set out for church. Since the church was some distance, we rode our bicycles. The “Green Dragon” bicycle, as it is nicknamed by the missionaries, is built like an army tank, for durability rather than looks or speed. Like its military counterpart, it comes in a lovely shade of camouflage green. Although the army’s tank is said to weigh a few more pounds, the bicycle makes up for this by its ability to reach excessive speeds, sometimes 15 or 20 miles per hour. Both are able to withstand mortar fire for prolonged periods of time. Finally, it is fitted with a unique, slow-acting brake system that avoids sudden stops by bringing the vehicle to a standstill only after 50 yards of desperate braking, at the same time emitting a sound which is guaranteed to alert all other motorists within a two-mile radius. This would be as close as we would come to a one-horse open sleigh.

    The meetinghouse is the top two stories of a small three-story building near the Kumamoto train station. We were having a special Christmas sacrament meeting. I was to be the program’s principal speaker. I have learned just enough Japanese to begin a very impressive sounding sentence while lacking the skills to finish it. Japanese is interesting in that you must think backwards to translate. If then you become stuck in midsentence and still think in English, being somewhat new to the language, you must look ahead in the sentence, think forward what you desire to say, and then translate backward and finally say it. (I won’t attempt to even broach the subject of pronunciation.)

    I think my planned speech on “the meaning of Christmas” came out as a third-person account on the wise men’s camels. The members, however, were kind as always and smiled even at the more blatant grammatical errors, although I saw one or two of the sisters wince. I knew it had gone badly afterwards when one of the brothers told me that the talk was “good.” In Japan, everything is on an elevated level. If they don’t say it was “terribly good” or “amazingly skillful,” then it was really bad. “Terribly” or “amazingly good” mean just plain good. If in fact it really was excellent, then the complimentary phrases will be repeated 10 or 15 times. My talk, therefore, being only “good,” was not good at all. It’s all a little confusing.

    After church, we returned to the apartment for lunch. Again the usual Christmas feast gave way to tuna fish sandwiches and soup. No figgy pudding.

    Afternoon dendo (proselyting) was without success, unless you count success as making a large dog very happy by allowing him to take two missionaries by surprise and chase them unceremoniously out of his yard. Things turned from bad to worse when I was attacked by the flower cart. Really, it happened. I was riding along minding my own business when out of thin air an old woman pulling a flower cart appeared in my path. To this day I believe nothing outside of a formula racer could have appeared that quickly from nowhere. But from the looks of the cart, it had been a few years since the last Grand Prix. I tried to swerve and brake but clipped the side of it, sending me sprawling on the roadside, Swedish knit and all. The Japanese, due to their attention-shunning nature, try to ignore anything less than a major traffic fatality, so she kept right on going without a second look. I was tempted to cry “hit and run,” but she probably hadn’t done any running since before I was born. Besides, with my complete ignorance of the road rules here, I was probably somehow at fault. There wasn’t much to do but dust myself off, check for bodily damage (of which there was none), and thank the Lord that one of the few inexpensive things here in Japan was dry cleaning. With that I set off after my companion, who was losing a personal battle to not let the humor of the situation (from an observer’s standpoint) show on his face. At the time, I did not find it at all funny, however. What a great Christmas!

    With afternoon dendo finished, we again returned to the apartment for dinner, the crowning event of Christmas Day. The curry and rice, however, did little to enhance the day.

    We left the apartment to proceed directly to the evening’s only appointment, the Nagata family. I was grateful that the day was nearly over. It had become somewhat of a physical and mental marathon in which I had dropped out, mentally at least, at the 400-yard mark. The moment we emerged from the covering that roofs the apartment’s walkway, it began to rain, then snow. Real snow! Not enough to cover the ground, of course. Anyone living above the 38th parallel would scoff at it, yet there it was, the only bit we received all year. I had always thought that it would be more homelike to have a white Christmas, but at the moment I could only shake my head at the incredible timing that began the downpour as I left umbrella-less to face the elements. What a wonderful Christmas!

    The Nagata’s invited us in with the customary Japanese formality, which we gratefully accepted partly due to an established sense of custom and partly because we would have accepted an offer to step into almost any shelter if it had been warm enough. The Nagatas were an elderly couple whose children had long since left home. They had allowed us to talk with them several weeks earlier and had shown interest during the subsequent introductory lesson, so we had made a December 25 appointment for lesson 1.

    As we finished renewing introductions and cultural niceties and began to teach, it struck me that we were teaching about the birth and life of Christ on Christmas Day, a unique opportunity. I was glad that I knew the lesson well enough to be able to add some extra comments and feelings relating to the Christmas season. As the lesson progressed something special happened—not an event so much as a feeling, yet one so tangible that all within the room could feel it. I could see on the faces of the family the whisperings of comprehension as they heard for the first time the story of mankind’s greatest benefactor. We taught of the Atonement, the mighty struggle that took place within the Savior’s suffering body so our sins could be purged at the price of life’s blood; then the glorious renewal, the answer to Christ’s humble request, “Glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee” (John 17:1).

    The Spirit was with us that night as we spoke. The Nagatas knew that we were not just two young men giving an historical account but two messengers testifying of their Master. We then instructed them in the simple steps of prayer. After offering a prayer of his own, my companion invited Mr. Nagata to do the same. As that humble little man, for the first time in his 60 years on earth, began to call upon his Eternal Father, I felt a happiness and a sense of purpose that transcended all other feelings. Gone was the cold, the loneliness of Christmas away from home. Banished were the thoughts of rebelliousness and complaint. The single purpose of a mission from God became very clear as a tangible blessing was manifested. Mr. Nagata had told us of the joy he had felt when some of his children had called from America, for Christmas. I could imagine that the Lord felt that sort of joy after a beloved child called from even greater time and distance.

    As we rode home that night, the cold didn’t seem to bite quite so hard. Maybe I was too busy marveling at the many blessings the Lord had given me. The chance to live in an age when I could travel thousands of miles in a single day to share what I had been given. The love of family and friends. The joy of knowing my purpose and reason for living. The apartment beckoned as we rounded the final corner knowing that some hot chocolate and a blanket were moments away. A starlit Christmas night, now devoid of clouds, testified of an Eternal Creator with endless dominions who had sent his Son on a night like this. What a wonderful Christmas it had been!

    Illustrated by Ron Peterson