Eleven years ago this week, my son Isaac was born prematurely. We spent everyday with him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital. On Christmas Eve, however, to give our three-year-old daughter something resembling a normal holiday, we went to church as a family. When we returned to the hospital later that night, Isaac looked weak and slightly jaundiced. He was so small, just under four pounds, that we put him inside his stocking for his first Christmas picture.
The next morning we awoke to grief rather than gifts. Isaac’s tiny body hemorrhaged and went into shock. We nearly lost him. For weeks he was kept alive with feeding tubes and blood transfusions. Eventually a consensus among the doctors started to form: Isaac’s liver was failing, and even if he recovered, which was unlikely given his size, we were told children with his condition do not live to reach ten years old.
UCLA’s basketball coach John Wooden said, “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself.” In the weeks following Isaac’s birth, I became well acquainted with my anger. It was cruel and unfair, I told myself. Once before I had experienced the pain that comes when a family loses a child. Now I must experience it again, but this time as the parent. The effects of my brother’s death had reverberated through my parents and their marriage for over 20 years. How would Isaac’s loss now change my life and marriage? Our son’s illness also tested my hope in Christ.
Looking back to that Christmas in 2004, Isaac’s condition did not cause me to question what my faith said about the future. Instead it caused me to question the usefulness of Christianity in the present. I still believed Christ would someday redeem all things, but with a sick and possibly dying child, a grieving wife, and an angry soul, I needed to see evidence of that redemption now. It wasn’t enough for Christianity to offer a hope for tomorrow, my weak faith—like the faith of so many others today—was searching for evidence of God’s power today . That became my prayer. I needed my eyes opened to see that God was with us and the power of his resurrection was at work in the ordinary brokenness of my world. He answered that prayer.
Isaac’s symptoms seemed random and contradictory. For weeks doctor’s struggled to understand what was happening inside his three-pound body. From this chaos they began to construct order. Using their skills and tools they pieced together theories to explain his bleeding and his malfunctioning liver. They ran tests and patiently helped us understand what they were doing to our son. Some of the doctors, aware of their own limitations, prayed for Isaac. They recognized some things were beyond their ability heal, and they humbly submitted to God. In the chaos they gave us glimpses of order.
As the weeks passed, Isaac’s stable in the NICU filled with flowers, balloons, toys, and hand-made blankets. Neighborhood kids and those from our church drew cards and pictures. The most beautiful sight, however, was arriving early in the morning to find Isaac being rocked in the arms of a volunteer. Women gave their time to hold infants in the NICU at night so that parents could rest. These surrogate grandmothers knew many of the children would never live. It was a useless offering—and all the more beautiful as a result. In the ugliness of those days these wonderful women were glimpses of beauty.
Unlike the teddy bears and flowers, many of the gifts we received were very practical. We did not cook a meal for two months. Food arrived at our door every day from friends at church, and sometimes strangers who’d heard about our need. Others cared for our older daughter so we could spend more time at the hospital. Anonymous checks came to assist with medical bills, and some came with notes explaining that God had placed it upon their hearts to help. In our scarcity, these generous gifts were glimpses of heavenly abundance.
Through these people and many others who faithfully engaged their callings, God was helping me see his presence within our wilderness. He was showing me that my hope could withstand the reality of this fallen and fearsome world. I felt like John the Baptist racked with fear and doubt in Herod’s dungeon asking Jesus, “Are you the one? Because everything I see tells me I was wrong.” Jesus responded to John’s doubt with kindness by sending John’s friends back to him with reports of his kingdom’s reality. They helped John see what he could not see from his place in the shadows—the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Similarly, Christ graciously offered me glimpses of his kingdom even in the darkness of those days through doctors, friends, nurses, volunteers, and generous Christian brothers and sisters. As my vision was restored, I slowly found my anger dissolving and replaced with a peace I could not explain. This peace was most noticeable while waiting for the definitive test results on Isaac’s liver. My wife and I sat by the phone all day. Before it rang, we each expressed our trust in God, we affirmed our hope for the future regardless of the outcome, and we took comfort in the many ways we had already seen his kingdom through the faithful people manifesting order, beauty, and abundance all around us.
When the call came, we learned the test results were not good. Based on the doctors’ explanation we accepted the fact that we were going to lose our son. I had given him the name Isaac before I knew his story would mirror the Biblical character’s. The Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Now he was asking me to surrender my Isaac as well, and like Abraham I could choose to trust his life to God or cling at anger, control, and fear.
That evening I found myself reading the words of Saint Augustine in his book, The City of God, where he describes our eternal home as a place of perfect peace. Augustine emphasizes the pervasive shalom that will fill the age to come. He writes, “There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end.” The last phrase lodged in my—the end without end—and it soaked me with hope the way a summer downpour drenches the ground. The truth of it ran from my head to my toes and I knew it was true in a way that went beyond knowledge. I knew the loss of Isaac would not be the end. We who belong to Christ do not believe in ends. We believe in the abundance of life. Isaac’s life would never end, and neither would mine. As the ancient prayer of the Church says, we believe in a “world without end.” Having seen the evidence of God’s kingdom in the present, and having a renewed hope in the unending kingdom yet to come, I found the faith to surrender Isaac to his care. My vision of tomorrow had given me strength for today.
Like Abraham at Moria, I did not know that God had also provided a ram in the thicket for me. Days after the definitive test on Isaac’s liver, a new specialist was brought onto his case. He offered a very different explanation for his symptoms and test results. He concluded that Isaac would recover and be perfectly healthy. No need for transplants, or transfusions, or more tests. It seemed too good to be true, but time proved the specialist was right. Isaac did pull through. It was a long process with a number of set backs, but today he is a perfectly healthy boy. The takeaway is not that outcomes are always positive, or that faith will spare us from the harsh realities of the world. Scripture, history, and our own experiences prove that is not the case.
Instead we are to recognize that the wilderness will not endure forever. Our hope, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that a day is drawing nearer when the power of his resurrection will transform the world and the chaos, ugliness, and scarcity of the wilderness will be overcome by the order, beauty, and abundance of the garden city of God. Until then, we also find hope in the message of Christmas. Jesus Christ is Immanuel—God with us. We must pray for the eyes to see the evidence of his presence all around us in the lives and faithfulness of Christ’s people and their work, and we seek to cultivate these glimpses for others walking in darkness.