A decade ago, near Christmas, my oldest son was 15 months old, I held him in my lap in a waiting room at a children's hospital. He had suddenly stopped walking, he cried at night like he was in pain. We'd gone through so much liquid advil, it didn't seem right. It was near Christmas, I remember the piano music from the lobby. The twinkling lights on the trees I wouldn't have seen, except that he loved twinkle lights, his pudgy fingers reached for them, "Mama, THAT," he said when he wanted to see something closer, "Mama, THAT."
We walked closer. A volunteer dressed as a clown serenaded patients with his ukulele. He came over to us, my son stared at him, wide-eyed, deliberating if he liked this new brightly-colored being or not.
"So what are you in for?" the clown quipped.
"I don't know. That's why we're here. We don't have a diagnosis," I said. "He just stopped walking and seems like he's in pain."
The clown sang a little song until my son hid his face in my chest.
"The doctors are good here," he said, putting a hand on my arm and giving a little squeeze before moving away.
Parents in a children's hospital near Christmas, they all have the same faraway look. Sleep-deprived, they contemplate unimaginable or uncertain futures. There's a certain hunch of the shoulders, like the weight of whole worlds are on their backs. The battle between love and fear gets real in a children's hospital at Christmastime.
On the side of love: there's radical presence. Staying present with yourself and your child no matter what. Even in pain. Especially then. Excruciatingly grateful for the miracle of their existence and yours, even though it led here.
On the side of fear: there's radical absence. Complete shutdown and disconnection from yourself and your child. Everything numbs and feels like it's miles away through an ocean of water.
You can see which side is winning the battle by the light in the eyes. Love lights up the eyes, even when they're in pain. You're in the hospital because you need real help. You're here because there's hope and faith. Fear dims the light, makes everything go cold, like you're falling, falling, falling, falling, and will never stop.
There's a tiny prayer I prayed in the children's hospital all those years ago, a prayer aimed at practicing radical presence as the future seemed dark and uncertain.
Here I am.
The boy Samuel prayed it when God called his name. Isaiah prayed it when God demanded who would do his work and he looked around and saw no one else there except him. Mary, mother of Jesus, prayed it when Gabriel told her she was going to bear a son.
Here I am.
It's a prayer that locates you as radically present. Ready to serve. It's a prayer that says "I'm a child, a virgin, alone, a no one, but I know where I am. I am here. I am with you. Use me. Send me. There doesn't seem to be anyone else."
When my small child thrashed around in his hospital bed in the middle of the night, these were the first words out of my mouth as I rubbed his back.
"Here I am. I'm right here, honey."
Sometimes, I imagine God doing this to me.
Sometimes, I imagine he is more forbidding.
God required a lot of Samuel, Isaiah, and Mary. He requires a lot of parents who huddle by children in hospital beds, trying and failing to sleep.
He requires them to surrender their children to his sovereign care. He requires it again and again.
Do you trust me?
Is your hope tied to a particular outcome or is it tied to me?
Can you pray with thanksgiving, even here?
Will you think about things that are true, good, noble, kind, excellent, even here?
Here I am, I prayed, open-handed because how else do you surrender?
Did Mary pray open-handed too?
Yet the one prayer he seems to pray back to us across the ages is the same one so many have prayed to him, the one I prayed too.
Here I am.
Beside the hospital bed, he says, here I am, with you.
In the hardship and heartache, here I am.
In the brokeness and the brutality, here I am.
In the uncertainty and the fear, here I am.
Emmanuel. God with us. God with skin on.
Here I am, he says, Radically present. Open-handed. Loving you in the darkness and in the pain.
In the hospital of the world, here I am. And I love you.
Sing alleluia. Christ the Lord is born.