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A World Away at Christmas
By Rev. Michael L. White

In December 1998, the U.S. Army assigned me to South Korea for a one year, unaccompanied, tour of duty as battalion chaplain to an air defense unit. "Unaccompanied" means I was assigned without my family, who remained in the United States.

As my flight stretched into 17 long hours, I remember quite vividly thinking how very far from home I was going to be. This was my first, long-term separation from my family, and I was having a tough time emotionally. The worst part was that I had to report ten days before Christmas, making this the only Christmas we had ever spent apart.

Granted, there are plenty of others in the military services who have missed numerous important occasions with their families, Christmas included, but this was my first. I was feeling quite disheartened and called upon the Lord for strength to sustain me for the long year ahead. As the unit’s chaplain, I was to be the resident spiritual leader and morale monitor, so it would not be a good example for me to demonstrate difficulty coping in front of the troops.

When Christmas Day came, I went into the dining facility for lunch with my new comrades and a group of young girls from the Isaac's Orphanage in Uijongbu (pronounced oy-WEE-jong-boo). The meal was almost like home, with plenty of turkey and all the trimmings. It was truly a sumptuous feast.

The children were a wonderful delight, too, as each one advanced to accept, with customary gratitude, a gift provided by the soldiers in my unit. Each child would approach the presenter with hands outstretched together and palms upward. They would then bow as the gift was placed in their small hands. A very polite, "Kamsahamnida!" (pronounced kahm-sahm-nee-DA), which means, "Thank you!" accompanied each bow.

After a moment or two, one of the soldiers noticed the children were not opening their presents. So, with the help of the interpreter, she urged them to begin opening them. As it turned out, this was another of the Korean rules of politeness. Recipients of gifts are not supposed to open them in the presence of their givers. This is to avoid embarrassing the giver by their reaction, should they dislike their gift.

However, once the children had permission to open their presents, it did not take them long to begin tearing off the wrapping paper and gleefully enjoying their gifts.

Of all the gifts that Christmas Day – the delicious meal and the joyful children, notwithstanding – the one that touched my heart, more than anything, was a Christmas card I received from a young couple in my previous assignment at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. It was the only piece of mail I’d received since my arrival, and it was the perfect topper to the day. The forethought they showed in mailing that card to my new address before I had even arrived there, brought a lump to my throat. It generally took about ten days for mail to travel to or from the United States, but judging by the postmark, it had taken their card just seven days. The fact that I received it in my hands exactly on Christmas Day, added even more to my astonishment.

When the mail clerk told me I had mail, I was genuinely surprised. I had been there only ten days, and had forgotten that I had published the mailing address before I left home. So I didn’t think there had been time enough for anyone to write to me. Amazingly, no one else, including my family, had thought to mail anything to me in advance.

That lump in my throat grew bigger as I held the card in my hands and read their personal note through tear-dimmed eyes, "We pray your ministry in Korea brings you and all those to whom you minister, joy and peace. Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful new year!"

I was instantly reminded that God had neither forsaken nor forgotten me. He knew exactly where I was, even a world away from my family and home at Christmas.

In my hour of great loneliness, and in a parallel scene reminiscent of the birth of Jesus, God caused a husband and his young, pregnant wife to send me a Christmas greeting that fulfilled the purest intent of Christmas: Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace. I took it as a sign of reassurance that, although I was unaccompanied by my family, I was accompanied by God Himself. He truly was Emmanuel ("God with us") to me.

I felt a sense of spiritual strength and encouragement come over me, with the assurance that I would be able to endure the hardship of separation over the coming year, and that I would be able to offer comfort to many others suffering the same pangs of loneliness. For that, I am eternally grateful – both to the couple and to God, for His tender mercy and lovingkindness.
Rev. Michael L. White is a freelance Christian author, pastor, and sometime techie. You can read more about him and his writings at his web site, Parson Place: Resources for Christian Ministers, Educators, Writers, Developers (http://www.parsonplace.com) or get a copy of his book, Digital Evangelism: You Can Do It, Too! , from http://books.parsonplace.com