The Precious Gift of an Imperfect Christmas

December 22, 2020

Picture it: Christmas morning. For the first time all month, you’re not focused on your chronic illness. You’re not thinking about all of the Decembers you were too sick to get out of bed. You’re not fixated on the pain in your head. All of your attention is on the presents in your hands, the poinsettias on your aunt’s front porch, and the family waiting for you inside. As you walk through the entryway and put your purse down, you wrap your arms around your people and almost remember what it’s like to feel well. 

Between bites of roasted turkey and fresh cranberries, you listen to your parents and their siblings tease each other about moments from their childhood, and you reach for a napkin to dry tears of laughter. Your cousins share career updates, changes to college majors, plans to get married. The conversation quiets. The questions swing your way. You stare down at your place setting, always startled a bit when your invisible illness is seen by others.

You take a breath and prepare to answer. You know what they want: a praise report to take back to their neighbors and small groups and friends from church who have been praying for you for years. You want to give them an honest update about your health, but at the same time, you don’t want to say that you’re struggling with new symptoms or a fresh flare-up or that you’re afraid your medicine has stopped working. You don’t want to break their hearts on a holiday.

Before you look up, you hear someone say it: “All we want for Christmas is for you to be well.” You don’t know how to respond. You hear the compassion underneath their words. You know they come from a good place. They’re kind words and consistent with your desire to be healed. But they separate you from the rest of your family. You are no longer a part of the whole, but the patient at the end of the table.

In your mind, you’re not much different from the others, sitting beside your aunt who is struggling to get pregnant, your cousin who is still praying for a husband, and your uncle who can’t find a job. Their ongoing needs are a source of ongoing isolation, too.

But the room stills as everyone waits for your answer; you feel like nothing you say will comfort them. What do you do when you show up without the one thing your family wants more than anything? When you can’t give them the gift of not worrying about your health anymore?

Better Gifts 

Here’s one solution: offer them something better than your health.

Your family has watched you suffer year after year; they assume the best gift you could receive would be physical healing. But freedom from pain is an unsatisfying present, an empty box, if it comes apart from Christ. Jesus is the best gift. He is what we all need most this season. Because of Him, we have gifts to offer that are better than a clean bill of health.

Chronic pain sufferers have many chances to learn this lesson. We practice dependence on Jesus just to survive the day. Family members who live close by ride this chronic illness wave with us and cry out to the Lord alongside us as our pain comes and goes, as we try new treatments, and as we wait for flare-ups to calm down. But family members who live far away don’t have the same intimate opportunities to enter into our experience of suffering. When they see us on Christmas, they see all of the updates they have received over the last year standing in front of them, face-to-face. As they are reminded of our suffering all over again, they are thrown back into a cycle of grief.

Their sadness can feel like our failure. We may be tempted to succumb to self-pity. We may try to shut down their displays of emotion by refusing to discuss bacteria or pills or medical plans over the holidays. But sickness is not a legitimate excuse to avoid serving our families, even when we feel like we have nothing to offer. This year, whether we are coming into Christmas ready to share good news of improved health or whether our chronic symptoms are in full swing, we do not have to walk (or Zoom) i
nto family gatherings empty-handed. Here are three precious gifts we can talk about this Christmas.

1. The Gift of Faith

Look at the examples of Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1—Elizabeth’s suffering was real and it was long, but she walked with God and rejoiced in His faithfulness. Tell your family about the deep confidence you have in Christ, especially now, as symptoms of chronic illness remain. Tell them who He is, and why He can be trusted. Talk to them about the promises of God and the power of the cross and why the resurrection is proof that everything God has said will come true. Talk about God’s character: the aspects that make sense to you and the areas that are too great for you to comprehend. Explain what it means to you that God cares about your condition and why it matters that He is sovereign over your sickness. Tell them about the times that you were faithless in the last twelve months, then share all the ways God has not stopped being faithful to you this year. And as you do, don’t forget Elizabeth’s words in Luke 1:45: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 

2. The Gift of Hope

1 Peter 3:15 (NLT) says, "If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.” True hope is not based on how well your treatment is working but in the hard won victory of Christ’s accomplishments on the cross. Comfort your family with the reality that a far better future is coming. Because of the gospel, you can be one hundred percent certain that someday you will be well. It might not be today. It might not be until you reach eternity—but one day, because of Jesus, you will be wholly and completely healed. Tell your family why you believe there is no better option than to throw your whole self into the hands of Jesus, knowing that whatever happens next, heaven rules.

3. The Gift of Love

Show your family the same kind of love that Christ has shown to you. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:4–7: Love is patient, even when you are tired of the topic. Love does not respond with sarcasm, even when you are offered weird medical advice. Love is not irritable, even when you are exhausted. Love is not resentful, even when you have reason to be. Model the kind of love that does not keep records of insensitive comments, but rejoices with the truth.

We do not have to wait until we have good news about our health to celebrate the best gifts of all. Let’s invite our families into our suffering, into our celebration of the hope we have in Christ. When the hard questions come, let’s thank God that one day Jesus will wipe away every health question and concern, and all will be well. Picture it: Christmas morning. It will not be perfect. Everyone at your Christmas table will have pain points, some of them seen, most of them invisible. Isn’t this why Jesus came? To give us the only gift that can truly comfort us—Himself. Instead of leaving the best gifts unopened because they can be awkward, let’s unwrap the joy of His presence together.

The Precious Gift of an Imperfect Christmas
 was originally published on

A Refuge in Harvey's Wake

September 12, 2017

Before Hurricane Harvey arrived in Houston, I hadn’t paid much attention to the piece of paper that’s been hanging in my grandparents’ beach house since August 18, 1983. The paper, now faded and framed, has been kept on wood-paneled walls in their living room in Galveston, a few streets away from the Gulf of Mexico.
My brothers and I were raised in those waves, practically born with seawater in our blood and boogie boards under our arms. We never had any reason to be afraid of the water, even as our parents made us aware of the kind of rip currents that can render a strong person powerless. The ferocity of the open water was simply not on our radar; it was represented only in the brown and white photographs my grandparents had framed above their television. The series of 3x5 shots showed the aftermath of Hurricane Alicia, during which tornadoes tossed aside the roof of the house as though it were made of cardboard.
My grandparents rebuilt the beach house after Alicia, and they made repairs after Allison and Rita and Ike. On their walls, the prayer of one guest has remained through the decades, preserved in calligraphy ink. The handwritten dedication is signed by its author, dated in remembrance of Alicia’s destruction. It begins:
We gave it back to you, dear Lord,
  the Source from which it came
  knowing that You also guard
  the seas, the wind, the rain . . .

Harvey Arrives

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, my favorite glimpses of the Creator always came when the sun began to set, when there was just enough light to wander through the fields of wildflowers lining the path to the water. In the moment when dusk turned to darkness, my friends and I would pass around flashlights and point them at hermit crabs hurrying across the sand, scrambling out of holes, and scurrying to find new homes.
I thought about the hermit crabs the night that Hurricane Harvey arrived in Texas. My roommate had come home with waffle fries and bags filled with flashlights and candles, several sacrilegiously painted with the face of Jesus on the glass. We watched the news as Rockport and Corpus Christi were slammed with winds as the hurricane made landfall. It was the first night I heard helicopters flying overhead, their spotlights illuminating the paths of people running for shelter.
Twelve hours later, my roommate and I were the ones receiving messages warning us that water was rising and that we needed to pack bags and prepare to evacuate. As our local meteorologist looked into the camera and said, “Lord, have mercy,” my roommate and I prayed together, surrendering our hearts to the God who reigns sovereignly over the wind and waves.
Then we picked up what was left on the floor and unplugged all electronics and propped up our couch on cans of coconut milk. Water entered our home, and we ran through hallways, sloshing brown water into bedrooms, throwing every towel and sheet and blanket we owned at the baseboards. When we knew it was useless to continue wringing out water, we sat down on dirty floors muddied with debris and begged God to stop the rain. We rejoiced when, days later, He did.

God’s Goodness in the Bayou City

When my street drained to the point that we could safely open the door without water coming in, I pulled yellow rain boots back on and walked to Brays Bayou, one of the slow-moving, marshy rivers that weaves throughout neighborhoods near the Texas Medical Center and Rice University, not too far from downtown. The earliest storm predictions had anticipated that this bayou would overflow its banks and flood nearby homes, but on the first night, it was still startling to hear that water had risen ten feet in one hour.
As the bayou spilled over its banks into my subdivision, just enough water entered our home to force us to throw out furniture and much of our flooring. Although my roommates and I have had to find other places to stay, we are far better off than the majority of our friends, family members, and neighbors nearby, who have lost everything.
Evidence of this is out on front lawns all over the city. Sidewalks have become a wall of floorboards and insulation and sheetrock, rotting and reeking of mold; a wall of carpet and couches and dining room tables; a wall where wet teddy bears top off the trash.
Almost a week has passed, and helicopters continue to fly over the bayou. Some are still dropping baskets down in order to save people, but at this point, most are attempting to measure the amount of loss with wide-angle shots of the area. Their footage reminds me of my grandparents’ photographs. The same faded brown and white haze seems to have fallen over the city; from above, all that can be seen is water.
As reporters conduct interviews on the ground, the stories pour onto land already saturated with grief. For some time, I sat and watched one interviewer give a live TV broadcast while standing on a boat in the middle of the freeway. As he pulled people to safety, he gave them the opportunity to share their experiences. He talked to a six-year-old girl who had seen her home destroyed, but she was quick to tell the world that she was grateful God had kept her family safe. As her dad picked her up and put her feet on dry ground, the interviewer bowed his head and turned away, not wanting his audience to see the tears that were dripping into the water as he whispered, “God is good.”
News updates continue to be shared in a compressed way: a series of calamities coming one after the other. The reporting style has made me think of the opening chapter of Job. The worst news of Job’s life is narrated in rapid succession, summarized in a few short verses. It’s as though the camera stays focused on the news desk, delivering the devastating facts before finally turning to Job to see how it registers with him. In 1:20, Job responds. He stands up, tears his robe, and shaves his head. He falls to the ground and worships.

Texas Strong

This week, organizations and individuals raising support for survivors have used the slogan “Houston Pride” to unite their fundraising efforts. I love my hometown, but I have had a hard time hashtagging “Houston Pride” because this hurricane has humbled so many of us. It has brought us to our knees before the throne of God, asking Him for grace to submit to His reign in the midst of suffering we simply do not understand.
So much devastation has already occurred, and the aftermath of a hurricane can often be more destructive than the storm itself. When demolition occurs and walls are stripped away, damp water becomes the breeding ground for mosquitoes and mold spores to spread. Buckets and buckets of bleach have been brought into the city in recent days, and clean-up efforts are currently focused on keeping dangerous mycotoxins out of the air.
But more than mold, I fear the contamination of bitterness into our atmosphere. Praise God that it has been kept at bay as the Body of Christ has poured into Houston from all over the United States. Christians have sent supplies and they have sent their people, and their presence has infused hope and joy into every part of this city.
When these precious servants return to their own hometowns, pray that we will not forget the compassion and grace God has shown us through each one of them. Pray for our hearts and for our hope, for our city to be rebuilt on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Join us in praising God, for as we have witnessed here in Houston, when the Lord is the saving refuge of the state, there is no strength like “Texas Strong.” There is no faithfulness like our God’s.
The last lines of the poem hanging in the beach house do not promise a future without storms; in the three decades since these words were penned, they have only worsened. But we who have been rescued by Christ have a shelter in the Most High, a refuge and fortress, in whom we can trust.
Though life for us may sometimes seem
A fragment torn by wind,
You, our God, have never failed
To all our needs attend.

~Patricia C. Neil; August 18, 1983
A Refuge in Harvey's Wake was originally published on 

a day with women who know true freedom

March 8, 2017

In Luke 13, Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. A woman is there, bent over, physically unable to straighten herself; she has been suffering for eighteen years. Jesus sees her and calls for her, and she steps forward, staring at the floor, feeling the eyes of the crowd on her body. Standing in front of Jesus, she strains to look up at Him. He says to her, “You are freed from your disability.” You are freed.

She begins to praise God, pausing as Jesus asks the ruler of the synagogue, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (v. 16). The woman will not forget these words. Jesus is defending her dignity in a place where women traditionally have been shunned; He is showing the leaders His power, showing her His care. He is declaring her to be a daughter of Abraham, an heir according to promise, part of the family of God. Precious woman, welcome to the sisterhood.

We are the women Christ sets free: women born into a broken world, into aching bodies with bitter hearts, with minds bent on our own way; women who come to Christ with desires so crooked, we could never straighten ourselves. We stand because of Him. We stand amazed by Him. We stand aligned with Him.

A Day Without a Woman

Today, March 8, many communities will be impacted by “A Day Without a Woman,” a protest organized by the same grassroots group behind January’s Global Women’s March. For twenty-four hours, women will disappear across the country and wait for the world to notice. They will refrain from work and abstain from buying items online or in stores. By removing themselves from the economy, women will demand the world acknowledge their significance.

Some people will be drawn to this event to protest the marginalization of disabled women, misogyny, domestic abuse, racism, and other incredibly important issues. However, as Christian women, we need to understand that if we stand with this strike, our actions will affirm the movement’s Unity Principles, especially the founders’ unbiblical views of gender, marriage, and reproduction. Since these views clearly contradict Scripture, we cannot stand for them.

Women Christ Set Free

The organizers of “A Day Without a Woman” proclaim, “We must free ourselves and our society. . . . ” But we are women who have found true freedom in Christ—women given life through His strength.

We are women who were dead in our sin, who have been resurrected by God’s power, who have become heirs of the crucified King. He who did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped gave up His rights so we could be righteous. He laid down His life in love.

We are women God created in His image, designed with dignity and value, who cling to the work of the gospel. Although the world does not always view the worth of women, we seek to reflect the respect and mercy we received at the cross, “esteeming others as better than ourselves, seeking to build them up,” embracing the beauty of grace.

We are women who uphold the Creator-God’s design of humanity, who see God’s concept of “male and female” as part of His magnificent, purposeful plan. We are women who maintain marriage to be “sacred and binding,” between one man and one woman, and we celebrate and support it as such. We are women who see the worth God has given human life, how precious it is in all stages and seasons, so we work to protect it “from the point of conception until rightful death.”

We are women who have been born again, women who bend our knees on the Solid Rock, who humble ourselves in solidarity, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Thank you, Lord, for the joy of this sisterhood.

In Luke 13, we meet a woman who, after eighteen years of suffering, has only minutes left before she is healed. When Jesus calls her, she walks toward Him, and the last painful steps she takes lead her straight to Christ. He is her finish line, her long-hoped for Healer, and we are women who walk this same way. Each step we take sends us gloriously closer to seeing our Savior face-to-face. Fully free, at last.

A Day with Women Who Know True Freedom was originally published on 

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