God With Us

This post was originally published on The Road to Brave.

“God, I don’t want the reason I value Immanuel, God with us this year to be because we are grieving.” 

It’s still a mystery to me
How the hands of God could be so small
How tiny fingers reaching in the night
Were the very hands that measured out the sky…

It’s still a mystery to me
That His infant eyes have seen the dawn of time 
How His ears have heard an angel symphony 
But still Mary had to rock her Savior to sleep…

Jesus the Christ, born in Bethlehem
A Baby born to save, to save the souls of man — 

The years of my annual tradition—wrapping presents one-by-one, sitting cross-legged on the floor while the verses of Joy Williams’ song Here with Us drift through the air on repeat—are starting to blur together. Kind of like my vision, swimming with tears, as I try to be healthy and not push emotions away but also not think too much about the sweet memories that brought the tears in the first place.

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Excessive though it may be, in a year of unprecedented change, my sisters and I have been looking forward to Christmas since spring this year. Our family is deeply tight-knit, perhaps in large part due to the challenges we’ve all faced together. A “brothers in arms” kind of bond. And Christmas is always one of the most precious times of year for our family, but this year it has seemed even more so. In a year where we’ve moved hither and yon with our new spouses and for school, it’s a time to come back together and be in the same physical place. In a year of letting go, it’s a time to experience the joy and familiarity of old traditions. And in a year of leaning on God like never before, it’s a time to rejoice over the fact that Immanuel means God with us. 

And to be honest, I’ve been thinking about that idea—God with us—since I started longing for Christmas around March of this year.

What a great blessing, I thought. God with us. What a beautiful, beautiful thing. I can’t wait to celebrate that. 

God with us is something that has been modeled particularly by a grandparent who is as near to my heart as a dear friend and peer. I grew up in the same town she lived in, spending countless hours slowly coming of age under the love and compassion and faithful prayers of a woman who loved me dearly. As I became an adult, the years between us faded rapidly. I cherished sitting next to her, sharing life and listening to wisdom as two very-much-the-same-age hearts in two-different-age bodies laughed over the silly squirrels in the backyard, admired the roses we’d cultivated together, delighted in the colors of autumn, teared up over currently unanswered prayers, winced at the pain and suffering of life, sought Jesus together, and rejoiced over God’s healing work in a hurting world. 

As the spring melted into the summer and the summer melted into the autumn, and life kept changing, the idea of God with us continued to be a precious one. Even as my grandparent and friend began to ail, experiencing more and more health complications as the year progressed. Long calls gave way to short ones as her strength declined, then to one-way video recordings. Finally, in October, her prognosis seemed bleak enough that my sisters and I all jumped on planes to make sure we had the chance to say good-bye.

This isn’t fair, I thought, looking out the plane window to the gray clouds rushing by. We’ve been looking forward to this holiday season all year. I desperately, desperately don’t want us to be hurting. I don’t want this Christmas without our Nana. 

God, I don’t want the reason I value Immanuel, God with us this year to be because we are grieving. 

In the words of the song by the same name, I have lived in the goodness of God. All my life He has been faithful. And yet in the face of loss, I shy backwards. No, God. Please, no. Since I was a kid, I’ve always teared up at even the mere thought of losing any of my dear family members. And now, as a newlywed, the sanctity and dearness of life somehow feels more vulnerable and more precious than ever before. 

Against all odds, our grandmother rallied and was able to move, not home, but into assisted living in a new town. Then, in November, things began to decline again—enough that she at last decided to return from hospitalization to assisted living on hospice care. 

“I have so many memories with you girls,” were her final words to me. “Don’t ever forget them.” 

The photo for this post is of my grandmother’s hands, holding mine as she prayed. The hands of a nurse and hospice worker who had so often held those of the hurting and sick and dying. The hands of a faithful servant of the Lord who had comforted others through a grief ministry, walking them through the process of loss until they could find healing on the other side of pain. The hands of a loving grandmother who had cared so gently for our family through our deployments and cancer and health crises. The hands that were folded in prayer throughout a lifetime of faithfulness, usually on behalf of others. 

On November 30th, Nana slipped into the arms of the Savior she’d always loved more than anything else. In a strange and heart-hurting but beautiful twist, it happened on the same day that the post Brave Enough to Let Go—a post I’d written about a month prior and scheduled—was published. 

God knows we never want pain. But maybe the most comforting thing about Immanuel means that He knows intimately what that pain feels like. His heart aches alongside ours. As a man, He lost His cousin. His friend. In all likelihood, His earthly father. His family mocked Him. He was betrayed by His own disciple. His Heavenly Father turned away as He bore the curse of our own sins and depravity so that we would never experience the same. So that we could be His forever. 

God with us.  

I wanted to go home this year for celebration, not for a funeral. But because we belong to Christ, this funeral is also a celebration. 

God with us.

I didn’t want to cherish the idea of Immanuel because I was hurting. But maybe the reminder that God knows our pain is exactly what I needed this Christmas. 

God with us.

Immanuel held my grandmother close for every day of her life, and now she is with Him forever. 

God with us.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also He said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

~ Revelation 21:3-7

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

God with us. Forever and ever.