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At Christmas, in celebration of birthdays

A PC(USA) missionary letter from Indonesia

December 10, 2012

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia

Good stories never spoil, especially the story of the birth of someone we love. As we approach Christmas, we are especially thankful for the story of the birth of Jesus. 

For a while, our most powerful story was about my younger brother’s life and tragic death this year. As we shared the deep sorrow of his story, we experienced how our lives are in God’s hand. We are continually reborn in the midst of death.

Recently my husband, Bernie, told me he wanted to welcome his 64th birthday with special joy. Life keeps moving slowly along, until suddenly we realize that aging is quickly approaching. Bernie wrote an inspiring invitation to friends and neighbors in Java to share in the celebration of his 64th birthday.  

He admires the way Javanese people celebrate birth. According to their cosmology, there are three important birthdays in a person’s life that are based on the sacred number 8 (windu). The first is a celebration of childhood when they reach the age of 8 years and many Muslim children are circumcised. The next is a celebration of adulthood when they have lived half a windu of windus (4x8) and are 32 years old. The final birthday is when they are fully grown up and have lived a full windu of windus (8X8) at the age of 64 years. 

This is a celebration of aging. Bernie’s invitation touched my heart because of his honesty in reflecting deeply on the mystery of his life. He’s glad he no longer has to worry about what he’ll be when he’s all grown up.

On his birthday, people came from four universities where Bernie teaches and mentors students:  Universitas Gadjah Mada, Duta Wacana Christian University (DWCU), State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga and Muhammadiah University Yogyakarta. The first three are part of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), which Bernie helped start.   

Our neighbors and networks of women and children also joined the party. Together with my family we celebrated not only Bernie’s birthday but also renewed our relationships in this large, extended family. We made a map of Bernie’s life journey and realized that he has travelled to so many countries to live with people around the world.  So many people have touched his heart and enriched his ideas and experiences.

I remember Bernie’s story about his mother, whose birthday is only one day after his. When she gave birth to Bernie she said that he was God’s present to her. On the 64th celebration of his birthday, Bernie cut the birthday cake and gave the first piece to Leonard Epafras, who was God’s birthday gift to Bernie. 

Leo was the first graduate of ICRS, who successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation on the day before Bernie’s 64th birthday. Bernie met Leo when he was a computer engineer with a good job. Bernie encouraged Leo to follow his heart, study theology and do research on relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians. 

Leo wrote a brilliant Master’s thesis on the role of Jews in Indonesian Muslim discourse. He went on to become a Ph.D. student in the opening year of ICRS. Along with Profs. Amin Abdullah and Reuven Firestone, Bernie guided Leo’s research on “Jewish Sufism” in Medieval Egypt. 

Leo explored the porous frontier between two religious communities, created by spiritual hunger. He showed that the common antagonism between Muslims, Jews and Christians can be overcome under the right conditions. These different religious communities have much to learn from each other. 

This is an important message in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, where the Middle East conflict is felt like a painful wound in the side. Leo is now the newest full faculty member of ICRS. So Leo got the first piece of Bernie’s birthday cake: yummy!

I was the cook for the party. With the help of our helpers, Bu Pronti, Bu Sukaya and some of my friends, I cooked all kinds of special food for the party. At first we intended to invite 64 guests, but in the end there were many more. Bernie gave a special request for pizza, cooked in our backyard, stone, wood fired oven. 

Main courses included pizzas, baked paprica potato slices, roasted cheese, seafood and rib barbeque, chicken sate (kabab with peanut sauce), salad, yam and pumpkin soup, gulai meat souffle and purple rice (rice mixed with purple yam). Everyone praised the wonderful feast. I thanked God that I could cook something special for Bernie, our family and friends.

The party opened with Javanese dancing performed by our neighborhood children who have free dance lessons every Saturday in our Javanese pavilion (pondopo). Then at the closing, before our Muslim friends went home to pray (magrib), I performed a Balinese dance called “Pendet”. This dance is usually performed as a welcome, but for our party I danced it to close the party by thanking everybody.  

In the dance I threw out fragrant, jasmine flowers over everyone, as a sign of blessing that they could bring home from my husband’s birthday. Of course, some guests did their prayers in our house and stayed on to talk into the night. 

Bernie’s life has enriched our world here in Indonesia in the way he has served God in following the life of Christ to serve people in Indonesia. For this blessing we are thankful to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),  which commissioned us to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8 ) in this beautiful land of Indonesia.

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