A letter from Becky and Eric Hinderliter in Lithuania
Recently we asked five students at Lithuania Christian College (LCC) to help us prepare this Advent newsletter. We know that our church supporters in the United States want to know about the lives of our students. We asked them to answer two questions: How are you personally preparing for Christmas? How are you planning to celebrate Christmas this year? Those of you who saw the student video we showed during our interpretation time in the States earlier this year might recognize four of the students. We found their answers to be rich and compelling:
Aina is from Albania; she’s a recent Christian and a student at LCC:
Thus far I have never celebrated Christmas with my biological family. However, I have done so with my spiritual family, and it has been a blessing. The past two Christmas celebrations, the ones that I have celebrated after having accepted Christ in my life, have been real moments of rejoicing. As I look back, in each of them I saw a person dear to me accept Christ. In the first celebration, Christmas 2008, a close friend of mine accepted Christ during the Christmas service that is organized by the church I am part of in Tirana. In 2009, my youngest brother accepted Christ. This year I am looking forward to seeing who is the next person God might place in my heart to pray for, but even more to seeing that person receive salvation. A deeper thought is my immense wish that my parents might be the ones to accept Christ this Christmas. I know this is not a traditional way of preparing for Christmas, but very often I wonder if God really wants us all to prepare in the same way for this celebration. After all, didn’t He make each of us unique and special?
In the past years I have celebrated Christmas with a nice, warm dinner with my friends in Albania. They are missionaries from the United States who have been serving in Albania for several years now. This usually happens December 25, and it is a great time of getting together and rejoicing in different ways. Later in the day, usually right after dinner, we have a special service at the church. It is usually a longer service that includes special activities such as dramatic presentations in addition to worship and a sermon.
Ellie graduated from LCC in May and is now studying development economics in Brighton, U.K. She writes:
In my family, there are no strict rules for preparing for and celebrating Christmas. However, I think that choosing food, presents, and an invitation list for Christmas dinner are far less important than sorting out the chaos inside ourselves created by our pace of life. We need to set right our priorities and establish harmony and peace within ourselves.
The best way for me to do that is through prayerful meditation. Every day I count my blessings, and during this time I usually look at the good I have been given: all the love, people, and opportunities. I also recognize my sins and ask for the opportunity to become a better person, to be loving and giving beyond the circle of my family and friends. I use this time to evaluate myself, not just on the outside — how I look to others and what I do — but on the inside — who I am, what I think, and what is in my heart — and see where I’m failing to become the person God wants me to be.
Christmas is a time of spiritual renewal for me. I think about the blessings God has sent my family and me, and give thanks. I ask for the opportunity to show God’s love and light to others. Christmas is a time of hope and forgiveness. It is the time to focus on the ultimate purpose of life, to let go of any negative feelings and focus on being thankful for what you have, and also to gain strength to do good things and inspiration to be good.
This Christmas will be unusual for me — I am away from home and will not be able to celebrate with my family or close friends. Christmas has always been the time of family gathering, a time of special closeness. However, I appreciate the opportunity to meet new people while living in the U.K., so I will spend Christmas in the company of new friends from all over the world here in Brighton. Sharing Christmas with someone new is a good chance to include new people in one’s intimate circle of friends and family. It will also be a good opportunity to learn other people’s life stories and share my own. I am looking forward to the celebration and to sharing the joy of Christmas with my new friends of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Sasha also graduated this year from LCC. She is back home now in Belarus working on plans for future study. Her story relates her faith tradition:
This coming Christmas is very special to me. Like every other Christmas season, it is filled with spiritual meditation, prayer, and hope for miracles in the lives of loved ones; this time I will be home for Advent and Christmas with my family in Belarus. My niece Alina (9 years old) is preparing to receive First Communion after the Christmas holidays, so this Advent will be a particularly important and meaningful time in her spiritual journey. Going through this preparation process with her also reminds me of the things for which I should be forever grateful.
This reminder is especially important for me as I am applying to graduate programs this fall, hoping to continue my education in the field of public policy and nonprofit management. I am full of anticipation and hope for the coming year and the blessings it will bring for my family. At this period of life-changing decisions and events, I pray hard to maintain trust in God and joy of His mercy in my heart.
Belarusian-Polish Advent and Christmas traditions are closely connected with church activities. On Christmas Eve the whole family usually attends the two-hour Holy Mass. People light their candles from the altar candle and bring the holy light home. We also take a bit of hay from the indoor nativity scene and place it under the tablecloth at home. For Christmas dinner we serve exactly 12 dishes. Sweet rice with poppy seeds traditionally is served first. Around 10 p.m., right after the Holy Mass, we return home from church to the festive table, decorated with hay and candles. Before eating, everyone stands around the table sharing a thin white waffle blessed by the priest. The more people around the table, the more little pieces you have. It is truly a blessed moment filled with joy and family love. Each person around the table shares their wish for everyone else. And I wish that you experience childlike joy this Christmas season, the gratefulness of one who has been given a second chance, and love like one who is very much loved.
Maxat Amanmuradov, a business major currently studying at LCC, is from Kazahkstan:
I do not have a special preparation for the Christmas since Christ’s birth is not celebrated in my country. The only place Christmas is celebrated is in church. The church I go to back home celebrates Christmas on December 25. New Year’s is the special celebration for people in our part of the world. Personally I hope and believe that this coming Christmas in Kazakhstan I will see my Mom again after 4 or 5 years of separation, me being a student and she working in Turkey. Maybe I will have an opportunity to share with Mom about Christ’s role in life. This Christmas I will celebrate with brothers and sisters of our church in Kazakhstan. New Year’s will be celebrated with relatives at the house of one of my Mom’s siblings. All my Mom&rsqup;s family will gather, including all my cousins, around a long table and wish each other all the best for the coming New Year.
Ruslanas, one of our students, is presently serving a 17-year sentence in a large Lithuanian prison:
I grew up in a non-religious family, so there are not many Christmas rituals. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know the rules of preparing for Christmas. This year, several days before Christmas, I will go to Chapel for Christmas Mass. I haven’t thought too much about how I will celebrate Christmas. I know that I won’t be at home, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t celebrate Christmas. In Lithuania (maybe in other countries too) we don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. We also have the tradition of serving 12 different dishes on Christmas Eve. My strength is making desserts and fruit dishes; that is what I will prepare. Because none of my friends will have to work on Christmas Eve, we will spend almost all day preparing these 12 dishes. Then, at about 9:00 p.m., we will sit and eat. Before eating I will say a prayer to myself, because there are no people who would do that here. We will eat, watch TV and talk. According to tradition, you have to taste all 12 dishes, but because I don’t eat fish, some of the dishes I will pass.
On Christmas Day, I will call my mother to send her Christmas greetings. That day we will prepare some meat dishes. In the evening we will sit down again and watch TV while eating. We will also talk and have a good time joking and laughing. That is the way I will celebrate Christmas.
Friends, it is our privilege to be part of the lives of these young people. What a joy to hear their plans and what a challenge to be with them as they carry their burdens. And what testimonies to the journey of discipleship! We are all members of Christ’s church worldwide. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, not just students we teach. Prepare well. Hope is breaking into the world. Merry Christmas!
Becky and Eric Hinderliter
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 193