Sitting in my warm room, it’s difficult for me to get the motivation to brave the cold. Even running down the road to the local grocery can feel like a burden. Yet, as I pray over the Gospels, I am reminded of the effort and resolve demanded of people who wanted to be healed. We see it in the woman with a hemorrhage reaching for Jesus’s cloak. We see it with the Canaanite woman persisting on behalf of her tormented daughter. We see it with the crowds coming to Jesus in the wilderness. And how does Jesus respond?
“Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”1
Imagine a barren place. Hard caked mud. Flies buzzing around your ear. Weeds sprouting up between your feet. And the sound of water lapping up against a gravely shore in the distance. There’s no comfortable place to sit, and the heat of the sun is making you dizzy. You have hazarded this sun in order to see Jesus. You have walked miles and miles, believing that this preacher from Nazareth could provide what others could not. And then, you see ill friends being healed. Consolation. But the men standing around the healer look anxious. You hear one of them whisper, “send them away.” This makes you feel nervous. What will you do if you are sent away?
Perhaps, like me, you are discerning how you should spend your holidays? You are praying and asking God to show you how to be present to your loved ones and still keep them safe. As I prayed with all my anger, frustration, loneliness, and hunger for loved ones this holiday season, I was reminded that God often provides for us in ways we don’t expect or even necessarily want.
About five years ago, I had just arrived in a rural part of South Korea to teach elementary students. I felt all alone and depressed. In just two months of arriving in this new town, where communication was difficult and I had no established community, Christmas had arrived. I listened to holiday jingles play as I sat alone in local coffee shops. And as I drank my Americanos, I realized that I didn’t even know if there was a church nearby. I feared that on Christmas day, which was fast approaching, I would be alone in my one room apartment, cooking up instant ramen on an electric burner. Then Christmas morning came. I had gone out shopping at the local convenience store to grab some breakfast, and as I unpacked my groceries of junk food and beer, I received a message on Facebook.
The local English teachers had invited me to an English speaking service and a meal after. I didn’t know any of the details, but that Christmas afternoon I found myself on the local bus, sitting between two grandmothers and their own groceries. Through an industrial complex, and down a road where chicken coops were stacked on the left, there was a little Presbyterian church, and outside of it, smiling faces expected me. I remember that church and the instant coffee and sweet bread that was often given out after church services. It became a place of belonging and the other people I met there would become friends that would support me throughout the year ahead.
As we finished the short simple service, where the preaching was done by a Mexican-American missionary, we made our way down the neighborhood and into a buffet. The restaurant, as I remember it, was more of a cafeteria. And the people around me? Some of them I had only known a few weeks and some I had never met before. Yet we were able to connect and laugh. Jajangmyeon black noodles filled my plate. One of the older church ladies kept offering me potato salad. A Filipino teacher dressed up as Santa Claus started distributing presents to the parishioners. People that were almost strangers welcomed me into their community and I became a part of it for a short time. That Christmas was certainly different than any before.
Grace is an important component of my prayer life. Sometimes I begin my prayer by asking for a particular grace, be it patience or understanding or compassion. Other times the grace comes unasked for and the only thing to do is name it. The grace I received that Christmas was God’s closeness, even during a time when I couldn’t fully appreciate it.
So that brings me back to discerning. How should I spend the holidays? How should I prepare myself to spend this Christmas season? When I pray with this memory, I am reminded to trust that God will give me the grace I need. Sometimes decisions are difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to do what we think is right. Yet, God is there offering his support.