God’s Ultimate Gift: Not an Explanation
By Kathryn Streeter (MDiv ’08)
I’ll never forget the Christmas I spent on a tiny island in the South China Sea. I was all of 19 years old, and my decision to spend a year teaching English to fourth graders on the other side of the planet probably marked the most unnecessarily demanding fulfillment of the 40-hour internship requirement that my college’s Christian Education department had ever seen. The children I taught had essentially been abandoned at a boarding school in the middle of nowhere while their parents whirled around the mainland in a money-making frenzy. No one—students, teachers, or staff—seemed to actually want to be at the school.
As the winter months approached, school leaders encouraged us international teachers to plan a Christmas event for the children, many of whom had never even heard of Christmas. I began teaching my fourth graders to sing “Away in a Manger.” They mastered the song without too much difficulty, but were confused and scandalized by my explanation of its meaning. God came to earth as a baby who was born in a barn and laid in an animal feeding trough? It sounded ridiculous, precarious, and shameful. Some of the older students didn’t get such a heavy dose of the manger situation, but instead learned songs about angels and wise men, which they promptly confused with ghosts and mythological characters, respectively. When Christmas Eve arrived, it was a miracle that the student body made it through the whole Christmas program without completely dissolving into laughter at the absurdity of the plot line. They seemed to feel about as out of place in the Christmas story as we felt ourselves to be at their school.
There was one part of the Christmas program that none of us had even attempted to explain to the children. A few of us teachers sang a song called “Breath of Heaven,” written from the viewpoint of Mary, that highlighted the vulnerability and apparent absurdity of her situation as she traveled pregnant to Bethlehem. I found myself strangely moved by some of the words in the final verse: “Do you wonder / as you watch my face / if a wiser one / should have had my place? / But I offer all I am / for the mercy of your plan.” In that moment it felt almost as if I, like Mary, were somehow carrying inside me a God that I myself could hardly understand—much less those to whom I was trying to explain him! And I took comfort in the fact that, while many things were required of Mary, an airtight logical explanation of exactly what was going on was not among them.
Ten Christmases later, I have more letters behind my name now than I did then: BA, MA, and even MDiv. I have more and clearer words to use when I try to explain things, and much more of a sense of where my explanations fit within the broader fabric of all the different ways in which things could be explained. All of this education is precious, every drop of it. I would not wish to spill the smallest drop; I would not wish to lose the tiniest stitch. And yet, somehow, my persistent experience has been that explanations have a way of failing to accomplish for us precisely what we think we need so badly for them to do. Explanations do not, after all, tell us how to go on carrying God inside of us as we face a world in which we can seem out of place, and in which what we have to give is welcomed more often into a forsaken stable than into a royal palace. Explanations resolve neither the vulnerabilities nor the absurdities of our faith and of our lives. And so, in an ironic way, I find myself grateful this Christmas season that God’s ultimate gift is not an explanation; God’s greatest gift to us at Christmas is the gift of himself.
Kathryn Streeter, who completed her MDiv this year, currently serves as an advisor for Field Education and as an adjunct instructor in English as a Second Language at Fuller.
Read more Christmas reflections from Fuller faculty, alumni/ae, staff, and students.