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The Mother of All Birthday Parties

Posted By on December 11, 2017

by Teri Ong 

 This weekend is the end of the annual “birthday” cycle for our immediate family. Even all of our children’s spouses fall within the January 5 to October 15 range. So far we only have one grandchild outside the range, but even he gets his in by the end of October. This gives us a couple months for focusing on Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. 

As our children were growing up, they understood that it would happen fairly frequently that we would not be celebrating “their day” on their day. This was particularly true if “their day” happened to be on the “Lord’s Day.” If we happened to have a church dinner that fell on such a birthday, we sometimes brought a special cake to share, but partying was reserved for another time.  

It has always bothered me that mainstream American Christians will let almost any other type of event supercede attending congregational worship on the Lord’s Day. One of the most prevalent reasons is because they have scheduled a family celebration of some sort at lunch time on Sunday. Even when these events involve working people and school-age children, there is no real reason why they need to be on a Sunday afternoon instead of a Saturday afternoon, except that it is easier to get people to give up group worship on Sundays than to give up personal leisure on Saturdays. 

But this year, the Lord has taught me something about birthday parties. 

 Our church congregation was blessed this summer to begin what we hope will be a long relationship with a group of Karen Baptist refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Many in their congregation left severe persecutions in their homeland for the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand. Some of them were in refugee camps for six or seven years. Some of the young people were born while their families lived in the refugee camps and never knew any other way of life until they were allowed to come to America under special resettlement programs. 

Even in America, for several years their congregation didn’t have a permanent place to meet for worship. The congregation that is with us now formerly rented a Christian café, but they could only be in it for two hours a week. Many of their other weekly meetings floated from home to home, until neighbors would complain about the parking and traffic. Since July they have met in our church building for two hours on Sundays and four to six hours on Saturdays. On Saturdays, they have Bible classes, choir practices, and at least two people praying continually on a rotational basis. 

The greatest blessing to us is that they desire to hold a joint worship service and dinner with our congregation once a month. We are not just their landlords, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, who happen to speak very different languages and have very different cultural backgrounds. 

We are not so naive as to think that one cultural expression of Christianity is automatically more pure or holy, and hopefully, we are not of the kind that believes our own way is better just because it is ours. We are seeing and learning amazing things from each other; we hope we are not polluting the Karen congregation with our soft American ways. We are learning about the preciousness of worship born out of persecution and suffering. 

Back to my topic of birthday parties– 

At the end of July my husband was asked to preach a birthday sermon at the 20th birthday of the daughter of one of the Karen elders. We readily agreed to attend. It was to be held at their home on a Saturday at the end of July. 

The home was a very modest American split-level. The only furniture in the living room was a small futon-style sofa and a low table decorated with a lace scarf and a vase of flowers. We were invited to sit on the sofa. Everyone else who came in sat on the bare floor. Pretty soon, most of the congregation was there.  

The pastor took his place, seated behind the little table. He got out his Bible and began the birthday worship service with Bible reading and prayer. The choir stood up in the middle of the living room and sang a hymn. My husband preached the birthday sermon for about a half hour. A congregational song and another Scripture reading followed. Then a family friend who had come from Denver gave a special birthday devotional for about 20 minutes. There was another congregational song. Then the birthday girl got up and thanked the congregation by singing a song that she had written for the occasion. 

The worship service lasted for an hour and a half. Mothers, fathers, babies, young children, teens, all sat together and worshiped together in the 95 degree heat, and then followed it up with an amazing banquet, set out in bowls and platters in the middle of the floor. We joined the group on the floor and were instructed in how to fill our noodle bowls and about the merits of the various treats.  The whole afternoon was wonderful– sweaty, but wonderful! 

A few weeks later we were asked to participate in another birthday party and in a house dedication party, both of which were on a Sunday following the regular services. At the birthday party we sat on traditional mats on the floor. The worship service only lasted an hour before the feast was served. The birthday boy was only 3 after all.  The house dedication service lasted the better part of an hour, and another feast was served.  On that particular Sunday, the congregation had participated in about 5 hours of worship that included Scripture readings, prayers, hymn singing and preaching. 

I have changed my opinion about the merits of birthday parties. The Blessing of Karen congregation has taught me about the potential of sanctifying special occasions – like birthdays and house dedications– with the Christian fellowship that comes through serious-minded corporate worship and joyful feasting. Their birthday parties outstrip many American church services in both aspects. If we could learn to worship the way they party, we would be much better off spiritually. Perhaps we would anticipate more fully and be better prepared for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb if we practiced up for it now. 

At Thy feet, our God and Father, 

Who has blessed us all our days, 

We with grateful hearts would gather, 

To begin the year with praise. 


Spread Thy love’s provisions o’er us; 

Give us strength to serve and wait, 

Till the glory breaks before us, 

Through the City’s open gate. 


[verses 1, 5 by James Drummond Burns, 1823-64] 


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