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A Christmas to Remember

Three lessons in the midst of a painful season

This December my family and I are preparing not for Christmas, but for major surgery. Again. It's the third year in a row. It changes everything about our December … and our winter. Last year the Christmas tree went up in November and it didn't come down until March!

Moving into the third "December surgery," it's easy for fear to override the festivities and heartache to replace the holiday fun. Our 13-year-old son, Joseph, was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Although he's had 12 surgeries, this one will be the seventh in 14 years that scar tissue has anchored itself to his spinal cord causing pain and problems with his back, legs, and bladder.

The surgery is scheduled for December 15 to best reduce school absences. The hospital stay will last about a week. He'll be laid low for about three and back to normal in six to eight weeks. Last year, complications erupted at every turn. He was in the hospital for four, one-week stays and missed 12 weeks of school before he was back on his feet.

The toll on our family was extensive. The hospital is three hours from our home, making the havoc and upheaval constant. We're a little gun shy about this upcoming surgery. The pain of last winter is still too fresh.

But Christmas is a time of chaos for everyone. Nothing new there. With exhaustion and overload the status quo from January to November, December puts many people over the edge.

When your child is facing major surgery, the pressure of holiday preparation takes a back burner. I'm off the hook in a lot of ways: reduced gifts to purchase, minimal decorations, no baking. I don't get asked to chaperone the youth group's caroling trip, to help with the Sunday school musical, or asked to bake six trillion cookies. No complaints there! People don't expect much from you. And through the years I've learned to significantly adjust the expectations I have on myself.

Would I like to enjoy a more typical Christmas sometime in the near future? Very much.

Will there be treasures to discover, despite our difficulties? Beyond what we can recall. I know, because last year we hit the jackpot. Three treasures come to mind.

We learned about the power of Spirit-led prayer.

Grueling nerve pain in Joseph's legs was the hallmark feature of last year's medical madness. Four days post-op Joseph had finally gone 12 hours without experiencing this horrific pain. At about 10 o'clock that night as he was falling asleep, we were celebrating, praying that he was out of the woods.

At four in the morning his gasp of pain woke me from a fitful sleep. Joseph's pain was back and it was the worst to date. It lasted for more than an hour. As hideous as it was, he came out of it peaceful and hopeful. I was amazed. He'd been flirting with depression for three days before. We were deeply weary from the waves of pain that had been descending upon him every two to three hours. I was buoyed by what I saw and knew God was a work.

My brother, Paul, who is a constant source of support and comfort, called the next morning. I burst into tears when I heard his voice. When I told him of our night, Paul burst into tears. He was awakened at four o'clock, overcome by the urge to pray from Joe. He prayed for more than an hour, then fell peacefully back to sleep.

There is power in Spirit-led prayer.

This Christmas when God lays it on your heart to pray. Pray. Heaven will come to earth.

We learned about the perspective of gratitude.

A lot of divine appointments occur in the hospital. Last year I was on a mission to retrieve yogurt for Joe from the unit's "Nourishment Center" when I saw and heard an "angel." She was about eight years old. A prosthetic leg was visible beneath her hospital gown and her head was wrapped in gauze. It appeared to be her first excursion outside her room. Her voice was precious and full of life, even though her steps were slow and guarded. She was enjoying every step while her mom and nurse hovered nearby. I smiled at them. I understood the milestone of first a "hallway" walk. Hopefully, they would be going home within a day or two.

Later that night, about midnight, I met up with the mom. She was alone, leaning against the wall, and sobbing. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder. Tears were in my eyes as she turned to look at me. It wasn't long before my arms were wrapped around her. Her sobs shook my body.

Her daughter had an inoperable tumor.

A 24-hour "simple" surgery had turned into three surgeries, nine days, with things only growing more medically complicated. The stress of the year had driven her husband away from them. He couldn't take the pain.

The extended hospitalization was also taking a toll on her two children at home, who were with relatives. The next day she was to spend the day with them while Grandma came to the hospital to stay with her little girl. But a call just had come in. One child was throwing up. The other was curled up in pain with stomach cramps. They were desperate for their mama. Not only was she not there for them in their misery, but now there was no way she could go home and be exposed to the stomach flu. She was at the end of her rope.

We stood in the hallway and wept together for a long time.

In an instant, our perspective on life can change.

My child was in pain, but would live.

My marriage was under stress, but was strong and intact.

My children at home were not throwing up, alone, without their mama.

I had much to be thankful for.

There's a higher purpose for our pain.

I don't have an answer to Joseph's pain last year. What began as days, turned into weeks, then months. There was no instant healing. There was more anguish then I can even yet wrap my heart around. Too many times Joe was brought to a breaking point: "Make this pain stop. Make it stop. If you love me, you'd take my life. Don't let me live like this. I can't take it anymore."

I surrender that pain to the Lord's keeping. I don't know what work he began through it, because of it, or despite it.

There's a lot of grit and grime in the Christmas story. It's not all angels, stars, and kingly visitations. There's a lot of pain.

There's a mad, mentally unstable king who had a lot of power at his disposal.

There's fear that comes in heavy doses from many different angles. There's danger. There's intense disapproval. There's the unknown.

There's death in the atrocities of the Bethlehem slaughter.

Jesus was born through the pain of a young girl, into a life of heartache and pain, for a journey to the cross where he would bear the pain and weight of the world.

There was a higher purpose to the pain Jesus endured. There is a higher purpose for our pain too, although we may never know it. We trust that nothing passes into our lives that does not pass through the heart and hands of God.

Jesus is Immanuel—today. God with us. God in us.

For all, and because of all, this December day, God draws near. He draws near through prayer, a new perspective, and our pain. He also makes his way to us through pageants, presents, and parties, although it can be harder to recognize him. God is bigger than any box we try to put him in.

In his pursuit of us, God is passionate and persistent. In these moments we often must practice a Holy Halt, an infusion of quiet we create and invite into the Christmas chaos, so that it becomes, with all its peace and power, a Christmas to remember.

Brenda Jank serves at a Christian retreat center in NE Indiana, where she has been launching ministries that introduce people to the rhythm of rest for more than 16 years. As the mother of five, her passion for rest stems from a home-grown need to rediscover abundant life in the chaos of 21st-century living. Roasting mini marshmallows over candles is a favorite family tradition.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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