The Christmas Elephant

As Doug Derbyshire related to Mark Randall (3/2011)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was two weeks before Christmas and we were busy making preparations for the Christmas Pageant that we were going to hold in our yard. We were planning to invite all our neighbors in the small Thai village that we lived in. It wasn’t unusual to see an elephant walk down the street with his owner trolling along beside him, carrying bananas and other fruit. The children enjoyed spending 20 baht (75 cents) to buy food to feed the elephant and the owner was glad to be paid to give him food. I had a brainwave when I saw him that day and thought wouldn’t it be great to have a live elephant in our Christmas program. It was amazing how easy it was to haggle with the owner and settle on a price of 1000 baht ($33) for the use of his elephant for that day.

The day dawned brimming with anticipation and Cheryl, my wife, dressed in her Thai finery, walked out on the second floor balcony. The elephant had arrived and with fear and trepidation she stepped off the balcony onto his back. With 40 other church members in tow she was led into town and through the market, passing out invitations to the Christmas pageant. When she returned I realized that something was wrong. The elephant owner didn’t say anything but he had that look. I asked, “What’s the matter?”

He informed that it was customary when renting an elephant that one was responsible to feed the elephant during that time. I didn’t know. I had never rented an elephant before so I immediately sent a friend to the market with a 1000 baht note and he came back with two tubs of fruit for the elephant and no change for me. The elephant seemed appreciative and his trunk dove into the tubs and in about 8 micro minutes the tubs were empty. The owner looked at me expectantly, “Elephant hungry.” I reassured him, “I want your elephant to be full.” He and his friend convulsed in laughter, “Elephant never full.” I told my friend to go back to the market and get more food. This time he came back with two tubs of watermelons and a couple of other bins with food. In 9 micro minutes the elephant emptied it all and the owner looked at me questioningly. I didn’t know what to do. In 45 minutes the elephant had just cleaned out $60 worth of food and we still had another six hours to go. I told my friend to go and get more watermelons. The owner had that look again so I asked him what was wrong.

“No watermelons. Watermelons give elephant diarrhea.”

“Oh yeah, right. We definitely don’t want the elephant to be suffering from that tonight in our yard.”

The owner noticed our row of banana trees beside the house and pointed helpfully at them.

I said, “Bananas sure go ahead,” thinking it had to be cheaper than handing out money every few minutes.

The man laughed, “No, the trees.”

The elephant walked over to the first tree, wrapped his trunk around the trunk, and ripped it roots and all from the ground. The man started cutting manhole size pieces and they were happily gulped down by the elephant.

At this point someone came up and said, “Dr. Doug, we have a problem. After your wife’s escapade advertising the pageant there will be 400 to 500 people coming to watch it tonight.”

This was a disaster. Our small yard could hold maybe 50 people in a tight squeeze but not four hundred.

“How can we put four hundred people in our yard?” I asked him.

“Five hundred,” he corrected me. “Don’t worry, I know someone who can help.”

“My friend has a truck and can get us the bleachers from the school football field.”

The elephant continued his deforestation program and was on his fourteenth tree when there was a “Beep. Beep. Beep.”

Above the fence a crane could be seen holding a swaying bleacher as it precariously swung from side to side as the ten ton truck carefully advanced down our narrow street. There would have been no room to put it in our yard but fortunately there was now a gap where the banana trees had been and it fit perfectly. I was congratulating myself that at least something went right when the owner came up to me as the elephant had just finished his sixteenth tree.

“Elephant thirsty.”

We did have a hose so I took him to it and turned it on. The elephant started drinking and became frustrated with the flow of water. Apparently an elephant likes his water to flow much faster so to expedite this he wrapped his trunk around it and gave it a sharp yank. The hose tightened and pulled the faucet, then the pump and finally the water tank right out of the ground. We didn’t have water for two days. This didn’t help the water come any faster and he gave another tug. With a groan the pipes up the side of our house came off, pulling retaining brackets, spackle and bricks. Wordlessly I turned to the owner with my hands spread out in mute appeal. It didn’t affect him in the least. He just swung the limp hose, “Water?”

I got friends and children together to run next door with as many empty basins possible and all afternoon there was a steady relay as filled basins were dragged to our house, emptied by the elephant and then run back over to be refilled.

That evening people started coming. The bleachers filled and then the yard until there were at least five hundred people packed like sardines. The pageant started and two other doctors arrived to join me as “Wise men” riding the elephant. They took one look at the elephant and showed their wisdom by refusing to ride up there. I was the only one who climbed on and with my little box of “myrrh” slowly swayed on the elephant. As I approached the crowd I had serious reservations about the whole setup. The elephant started tiptoeing its way through the crowd and my heart sank as I became diaphoretic. I had visions of the elephant being startled and running amok among the crowd. Since I knew what an out-of-control elephant could do – I had watched “Lord of the Rings” – I could just visualize the headlines tomorrow, “Baptist Elephant Tramples Tiny Buddhists.”

“O Lord,” I prayed earnestly, “Please watch over everyone here. I’m sorry I ever hired the elephant, Please don’t let anyone get hurt.” I could just see my career and life as a missionary going down in flames.

Somehow the elephant got to the manger where Mary and Joseph were without squashing anyone and there, an amazing thing happened. He slowly and majestically bowed down before the manger. We had never practiced this and as I slid off and walked forward with my gift I glanced sidelong at him in astonishment. Everyone was flabbergasted and one could hear “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” going up around the group.

When a new believer got up and shared his testimony he had never before had such an attentive audience. Our neighbor, with whom we had shared with many times before, this time came forward and made bold declaration that he wanted to become a Christian. The neighbor has been faithful ever since. To God be all the glory for his use of even a Christmas elephant.

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