Where Ever God Leads
I want to tell you about a little girl, Shahnoza, who at the time of this story was 8 years old. Her family was from Kazakhstan and consisted of her mother, Matlubba, two older sisters and, Dad, who was a businessman who remained home, while the family immigrated to the U.S. Her mom, Matlubba, a medical doctor, was learning English at the old Lorretto Heights Language Center in Denver.
We first met Shahnoza and her family on a cold Sunday in October, when they showed up at our church, unexpectedly. We learned that in order to get to church, the family boarded a bus 2 hours early, and made 2 transfers to arrive in time for worship. Then they made the same trek in reverse to get home. Members of a Christian Church in Kazakhstan for the previous six years, they made worship a high priority for their week and rarely missed. I have often wondered how many of us would make the same sacrifice on a cold winter Sunday, or would we choose to stay at home in bed?
Though it was clear that English was not their first language, they joined right in with genuine excitement. They delighted in having an instant family at church, and the words on the big screen in worship helped them to follow along. Any gestures of friendship were immediately acknowledged, and any kindness shown to them was readily appreciated. They were, without question: strangers in a strange land.
Shahnoza, whose name I learned means “Little Countess”, typically stayed close to her mom. Her sisters would venture out a little further, but soon they too would return to her side. I thought little Shahnoza clung to Matlubba like a late leaf clings to its branch in autumn. She feared she might be separated from her. As the weeks unfolded, however, we began to see a difference in our ‘little countess.’
As soon as the family arrived, and unbundled from their Sunday morning expedition, Shahnoza would race to the front of the sanctuary — a blur of pumping arms and legs, long black hair and bright color. Shahnoza came to rest in the very first pew to the far right of the altar, beneath the dazzling Christmas tree. It was lighted and decorated brilliantly in gold Chrismons and white feathered doves. Little Shahnoza was transfixed; in her own little world, a private reverie of love, peace and holy worship. The child’s face was lit up with utter joy at the sight, and I wondered if somehow it harkened back to something she knew, back home. (If you have read this far, the watch word to share with me is JOY. If you tell me this word, I will respond with a special blessing.)
Shahnoza is all grown up now, and at school for nursing in Littleton. Still, I remember that little girl, our tiny countess, who was transfixed by the wonder and awe of the sanctuary Christmas tree. She was a stranger in our strange land, far from anything familiar, struck with light and Joy, sharing in the warmth and welcome of sacred community.
As we enter a New Year, I believe that our gift to one another in the warm afterglow of Christmas is not that different from what our displaced little countess discovered as a child. At our best Church is a place — safe and warm — for the dispossessed. We are family to one another, near and far. And we are sacred community gathered in the Joy of Jesus, transfixed by His love, and consumed by an eerily familiar JOY. We are strangers in a strange land, yet remember that we belong in peace and safety where ever God leads.
Blessings for the New Year,