As much as it doesn't seem like Advent in the traditional sense, all around me I am reminded that we are waiting and watching for God's coming into the world. I have been in mourning because I will not have a live nativity to be a part of this Christmas Eve. I even threatened my commanders that we really have the perfect situation. There are shepherds right outside of our walls, tending sheep and goats and plenty of "local actors" who already have beards. Who needs the fake stuff, when we have the real thing. And then yesterday, visiting the Egyptian hospital which facilitates medical care for Afghan civilians from across the region, there were quite a few candidates for the Baby Jesus. Of course, I realize that staging a nativity play in Afghanistan has its challenges, but talk about an opportunity for interfaith dialogue.
As I contemplate the lectionary text for this 2nd Sunday of advent, Isaiah 40:1-11, my mind continues to drift to yesterday's hospital visit. When I hear the words, "Comfort, Comfort you my people," I can't help but hear Handel's Messiah. After all, I think I have sung it around thirty times. But now, when I hear those first lilting notes in my head, I can't help but see this group of children who gathered at the hospital. Some had come to have operations, fairly major operations on eyes and ears, and others were there because they had to accompany their mother or grandparent on the journey. It seemed that these words were voiced for their hearing, and I couldn't help but wonder how we might be a part of an expression of holy comfort.
A group of service members (Army, Navy, and Air Force plus some civilians, too) came together to give out new school supplies for the upcoming school year. Knowing the state of the school system in Afghanistan, I hope these children will actually have the opportunity to go to school when they open in April. As most events of this nature happen, things didn't go as planned. We had quite a few minutes of hanging out in the courtyard as we waited to present our gifts of pencils, paper, markers, crayons and more. I went down the line, shaking every hand, and saying the standard greeting, "A Salem Alakum" or "Peace be with you." Whenever a Muslim greets another, they also place a hand over their heart. Therefore, I proceeded down the line of children, greeting and placing a hand over my heart to show my affection.
Kids are fast. I have known this since my babysitting days in middle school, but its easy to be lulled into their grasp and not expect what is coming next. Not able to really exchange words, we were all doing a lot of pantomiming. I would get invited to sit with a group, they, knowing more English than I knew Dari, would tell me who was in what family. They would then start rummaging through my pockets, this action a result of many encounters with soldiers who typically have candy in their pockets. Before I had time to react, one child had my front pocket open, and was ready to head off with my ID. Thankfully, I grabbed it back in time.
As I spoke to each child, they would greet me and then show me their shoes. With exception, every one of them was wearing a shoe that was broken or whose souls had literally rubbed away to nothing. That they were hoping for shoes was immediately apparent, but their desire for shoes did not detract from their enthusiasm over school supplies. We lined them up eventually and as they entered into the door, they were given a mark on their hand which indicated that they had been given their back pack of suupplies. These kids are smart. Within minutes they were around back, washing off the mark. I even have a picture of a three year old fervently licking his hand, in hopes of removing the black sharpie X in order to go back through the line.
Despite the fact that this event had all the makings of a mob scene, things remained relatively calm. There was no fighting, and when we had given everything away, the news was received peacefully.
In many ways though, kids are kids whether in Afghanistan or Africa or America. There are some common threads which transcend our geography and levels of poverty. A smile can go a long way and when a child feels your affection genuinely, it is only a matter of time before he or she returns it with a simple hand held or snuggle. Pictures can be a wonderful way to reach out, though it is important to be sensitive to the fact that some do not want their picture taken. Mostly, they want to see themselves on the little screen and are even happier to have a picture with a new friend. The pictures that I have included here were my favorite.
The first is of a girl who was deaf and mute. She had come to the hospital with great hope that she might be able to have her hearing restored. Her father works on base and this was his day off. I was struck by her patience as she watched the world silently whirling around her. She embodied a deep peace as she sat next to me and held my hand, comparing my fingers with her own. I was not sure how to express my love, but as I sat with her and we looked at each other's hands, I realized that part of comforting each other is through simply sitting next to one another, not talking or saying anything, but just being there. It seems fitting, in this season of Advent, as we all go about our waiting and watching and wondering just how to express the hope and reason for this season, that the experience of mutual comfort might be known through the presence of a child. This is indeed what we seek to celebrate in these weeks.