2021, Henri Nouwen’s Prayer, and God With Us

On Christmas Eve, I read the most perfect thing. It was a daily meditation from a collection of Henri Nouwen’s writings, You Are the Beloved. It was called, “A Prayer.” I’m gonna be honest— in devotion books and daily readings I usually skip over the holidays because I expect them to be so cliche. Like how many ways can someone explain the Christmas story? But this was different. During the time of year when people (ok me, I don’t know if anyone else does) are looking over the past year and trying to figure out what the heck just happened, it was such a breath of fresh air. 

This was one of the hardest years I have ever survived. I thought that 2020 was bad, and it was, but it was nothing compared to 2021 which I refer to in my mind as “The Aftermath.” Here’s what I learned: hard things happen in moments. Abrupt before and afters that mark you with little cuts, neatly stitched up, with the option to heal, or to become infected and angry, damaging all of the surrounding tissue. But healing? Healing is hard work. It’s a decision, It’s not the instantaneous strike of a fist or the firing of a bullet or the slash of a knife. It’s the painstaking cell-to-cell meeting and growing and mending. It’s not the thing that happened to you that you had no control over. It’s the thing that you have to choose to do every single day after that. It’s the hours and weeks and days stretching forward as far as the eye can see, every second a nod back to the moment when your life changed. 

The traumas are cold and hard, but lots of people are there for those. They surround you with buckets of white chicken chili and beautiful books of poetry and hugs and phone calls and promises of a better future. But the healing is lonely. The healing can only be accomplished by you. Other people can witness it, and they can encourage it and they can support it, but when it comes right down to it, the healing is a solitary, moment-to-moment decision. There’s nothing anyone can do to speed it up. It’s a quiet yet solid commitment that this-will-not-be-how-I-end. Sometimes you make the decision once a week or once a day or once an hour. And other times you make that decision every single moment that you live. Every breath is a prayer. Every blink of the eyes is a re-commitment to keep your eyes open and embrace whatever will come next. 

Some days we choose not to do it at all because it hurts too much and the cost is too great and we don’t possess the energy we need to fight, and that’s okay. Those are the days that we lay down in our grief and we let it teach us and we rest so that come tomorrow maybe we have a fighting chance to start over again. 

In my pre-2020 years, I believed that the bad things that happened to us would surely and always work out for good, and that pain was a little stepping stone on the way to the good that was promised. That is the belief of most southern conservative evangelicals because that is what we are taught. God works all things together for good. He has plans for good and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope. He is more than able to supply all our needs according to his riches in glory. And I’m not saying these things aren’t true, I’m just saying that sometimes we rely on them out of context, and then when we use them as the lens through which we view the things we don’t understand in our lives we are disappointed and jaded and unable to comprehend why the God we believe in has forsaken us. We forget that he came to be “God With Us.” God With Us in the suffering. God With Us in the pain. God With Us in the moments and the hours, the weeks, the years. 

On Christmas Eve as I read Henri Nouwen’s prayer,  I was thinking about the events that happened over the past year. Over what it was that made this year so difficult for me. Over the transformation I witnessed taking place in myself. This time last year, I was in Asheville at The Grove Park Inn, excited for changes I anticipated coming over the next year, but worried about my marriage and my kids, worried about what I would do professionally, wondering what was going to happen with my dad, and missing my mother so much I could hardly breathe. I was up early, sitting on the terrace with a coffee, looking out over the fog of the mountains, and listening for what God might say to quiet my heart. I was doing a Bible study at the time by Priscilla Shirer called Elijah. I remember as January unfolded, the words that she wrote seemed to be handwritten, addressed, stamped, and mailed to me for exactly what I needed to hear. As she guided me through Elijah being led to Zerephath from the Brook Cherith, saying “God, anywhere but there.” And then to the widow at Zarephath saying, “God, anyone but her.” As he called down fire from heaven and slaughtered all the false prophets and ran for his life from Jezebel. As he laid down, tired and exhausted and rung out and unable to go on any farther and prayed, “Lord the journey is too much. Take my life from me.” His journey was a foreshadowing for mine. 

I watched my dad as he came so very close to death that more days than not in the first half of the year, death felt like a person, an extra body in the room, waiting in the wings for the right moment to pounce. As we got our hopes up again and again for a transplant to come through and spare his life, then again and again were sent home because it wasn’t the right one, I remember resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn’t have either of my parents anymore, and questioning what good could possibly come from all this loss. 

And then I was there for the moment it happened, when they wheeled him downstairs for surgery and ten hours later I talked to the surgeon on the phone who told me that everything had gone smoothly and I finally allowed myself to cry deep, heaving sobs, letting all the fear and all the weight on my chest evaporate, a lightness overtaking me that I hadn’t even known was possible. And then the next couple of days went by in a blur when he was taken off the ventilator and his first words were, “Thank you Jesus,” and his second words were, “I miss my wife.” 

In the days and weeks that followed, I expected more of myself. I expected that I would take all of this as a new lease on life. A fresh start. But what caught me by surprise was that I felt worse. When I was focused on taking care of my dad, I was forced to put my own problems on hold. I had to hold it all together and be strong, and I had to be positive for my kids and my family. But when all of that pressure was gone, it was time to take inventory of my own wounds. The ones I’d known were there but never expected to require attention. I went through months of depression and anxiety so intense I could see no way for life to ever get better. I was able to identify hurts and problems that I didn’t even understand at the time were impacting me. I had layers upon layers, years upon years, of stage make-up removed until the mask had fallen away and there was nothing left but me. Every worry, every fear laid bare. Every disappointment now clearly visible to me and everyone else. 

After months of that, of hopelessness and despair that I didn’t even understand being aired out and tended, then the healing could start. I could finally decide to try to become who I wanted to be. But some days I just couldn’t do it. People were carrying me when I was too weak to take the next steps by myself. Other Half, my kids, My Friend, Christina Yang, My Crazy Lady, my family, and others in unexpected ways and unexpected places. All during the year, there were times I felt so forsaken, but there were other times when I knew that God must be close to me because there was no other explanation for how I was able to persevere every day. No explanation except, “that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in you.” 

Recently I stumbled across Psalm 77 and it was the most beautiful depiction of the year I had been through. “I cried out to God for help, I cried out to God to hear me…I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: Will the Lord reject me forever? Will he never show his favor again?…Has God forgotten to be merciful….”

Towards the end of the psalm, the psalmist talks about the waters. How the waters saw God and they writhed and convulsed. How the clouds poured down water and the skies were thundering and there was lightning and a whirlwind and the earth trembled and quaked. And there, in the midst of all of that chaos, in the midst of terrifying circumstances and impossible decisions, there was the path. The psalmist writes, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen (Ps. 77:19). 

That was the path I was led on this year, walking right through the middle of the choppiest waves and most intimidating winds. Right through the place I never wanted to be. I was a wanderer in the wilderness, fleeing from an invisible enemy, knowing that if I turned back I would be overtaken but fearful that if I plunged forward into the unknown I might drown. The waters He led me beside did not feel like the still waters of Psalm 23. They were raging waters, choppy and foaming and angry and deep and threatening to sink any ship that attempted to cross.  It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t what I wanted, and I hope I never have to suffer anything like that again, but it was the right path. The waters weren’t for destruction. They were to show me how the impossible can be accomplished. They were for a baptism. 

The water was for the wounds to be cleansed so the healing could come. It was so I would cross over to the other side, legs trembling, unsure if this could really be the end of such a long journey. I realized that this is the real faith experience. This is what we shy away from and refuse to believe could be “God’s will.” What we often refuse to open our eyes and embrace because we’re just too afraid of what will be asked of us. I know what will be asked. Everything will. 

With these thoughts and this gratitude, I opened the book on Christmas Eve to read “A Prayer” by Henri Nouwen. He writes, 

“O Lord, How hard it is to accept your way, You come to me as a small, powerless child born away from home. You live for me as a stranger in your own land, You die for me as a criminal outside the walls of the city, rejected by your own people, misunderstood but your friends, and feeling abandoned by your God.

As I prepare to celebrate your birth, I am trying to feel loved, accepted, and at home in this world, and I am trying to overcome the feelings of alienation and separation that continue to assail me. But I wonder now if my deep sense of homelessness does not bring me closer to you than my occasional feelings of belonging. Where do I truly celebrate your birth: in a cozy home or in an unfamiliar house, among welcoming friends or among unknown strangers, with feelings of well-being or with feelings of loneliness?

I do not have to run away from those experiences that are closest to yours, Just as you do not belong to this world, so I do not belong to this world. Every time I feel this way I have an occasion to be grateful and to embrace you better and taste more fully your joy and peace.

Come, Lord Jesus, and be with me where I feel poorest. I trust that this is the place where you will find your manger and bring your light, Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.”

When I read this, I see my own journey. I see so much of the time that I have questioned myself and my faith and my God. And I see Jesus. Not how I wanted, not how I envisioned, but I see him still. In the way my husband refused to give up on me when I pushed him and everyone else away. In the way my daughter wrapped her arms around me and prayed over me for peace and joy to find me again. In the way Christina Yang would sit with me and hold my hand, or in the phone conversations with My Friend who never judged me for my weakness, but rather supported me through it until I could find my footing again. In the text messages from my dad that said, “Princess, Daughter of God, going through the fire means you are being refined.” He was everywhere I needed Him to be. 

I hope for you that your journey through this next year goes much more smoothly than mine did through the last one, but if it doesn’t, I hope you see Jesus. In unexpected ways, and unexpected places. I hope you discover that when you think He’s left you, it’s not because He’s gone, it’s because He looks different than you thought He would, but He’s everywhere you need Him to be, God with us. 

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