Our church was having a Christmas program, and all the ladies were chipping in to cook a big meal. We sat in a circle in the sanctuary, nibbling on fried bananas while planning the menu for the big event. The other ladies all knew exactly what to bring. Nasi kuning. Bayam. Ikan kuah. Tahu.
“What shall I make?” I asked.
They shrugged. “Make whatever you want,” they said.
As we climbed into our ambulance-turned-family-car for the drive home, I had that nervous, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach…. What should I cook? I was the only foreigner, and I had never been to a Christmas program at our church before. If it had been a potluck in Kansas, I would have had a framework for that. I knew what to expect there, what people would bring, what people would want to eat at Christmas.
I decided to make a pumpkin pie. No Christmas feast would be complete without it, I figured, and the congregation would probably like trying something new.
It took me five hours to make the pumpkin pie. Cooking the pumpkin. Blending it in the mixer. Feeding the baby. Making lunch for the family. Making the crust. Mixing up the pie. Baking the pie in our gas oven. When the pie finally came steaming hot out of the oven, I was satisfied. It looked pretty tasty, even the crust (which for once was not burnt).
My husband and I arrived that evening at the Christmas program, me with pie in hand. My heart sank. The table was covered with an elegant white table cloth and silver serving containers like those presented at a fancy hotel. There were no individual dishes like those at the potlucks with which I was familiar. All the other food was prepared and served in the silver serving containers. My pie was the ONLY “individual” item; it was quickly ushered to the back room and never put out on the table.
During the program, I had a horrible case of the runs (some bad street food?). Because there was no bathroom at church, I had to sprint down the street to a hotel and ask to use their bathroom. I ran through the kitchen and managed to make it to the squatty potty in time. The teenaged male employee behind the desk smirked when I came out, and I sheepishly bought a juice from the mini-fridge as an act of thanks.
By the end of the evening, there was still no sign of the pumpkin pie. I was tired and wanted to go home, but after five hours of work, I was not going home without the pie, leaving it to get tossed in the trash. I walked into the room where odds and ends were being stored and saw the pie, on the far corner of a table, covered by some black trash sacks. There was a handful of people milling around, and they saw me eying the pie.
“Oh, we kept it because it is so special, and we wanted to save it for the end,” someone offered. My eyes burned with tears. I knew they were saying that just to make me feel better. I was sure it would be tossed out the second I left, or worse yet, that it would get nibbled at and then made fun of.
That night I could not sleep. I tossed and turned in bed. I got up to go to the bathroom and on my way knocked a glass off our dining room table. It shattered on the floor. I was already on edge, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I ran back to our room and threw myself on the bed.
“I will NEVER make anything for them EVER again!” I sob onto my husband’s shoulder. “Why can’t I get anything right? I don’t even know what kind of food to bring to a stupid Christmas program! Why did I ever think pumpkin pie was a good idea? Why do I always feel so awkward and insecure? Why is everything so complicated here?!”
Now, four years later, I have cooked again for these friends, but I still remember well the sting of the embarrassment that I felt then. The thing is, when living in a foreign country, there are always new frameworks and rules to learn. What do I wear to this kind of an event? What kind of gift do I take? What should I say in this type of situation? How can I politely refuse in another? I did not grow up here, and I did not grow up within these rules. There is more “I’m-not-sure-what’s-best-to-do-in-this-situation.” More ambiguity, more variables, more to learn. More discomfort.
This week I was reading Isaiah 53 and was challenged by Jesus giving up honor, privileges, and the comfort of His home in heaven to be born on earth and endure humiliation, pain, sorrow and grief, shame, and even death.
I know Jesus can understand when He looks down from heaven and sees me struggling to find my way through this new culture. It can be uncomfortable, and I can know that He notices this. Maybe, just maybe, my tears over that pumpkin pie will help me understand His sacrifice a little better.
Where have you experienced Joy in unexpected places?