Too much can happen in a year for Christmas to save.
Some of us have lost loved ones. Someone definitely received a cancer report. Others saw a precious relationship crumble to dust. We watched people leave their faith, their marriages and even their own lives this year.
For many, certain things have happened that were so defining they now and forever have a “before” and “after”. Before this happened, after this happened. They go by several names – curveballs, shocks, tragedies – but all eventually morph into one doesn’t quite go on vacation: trauma.
Or maybe for you, nothing has changed, and that’s what hurts beneath the celebrations all around. There was no happily ever after this year – no promotion, no change in relationship status, no fulfillment of desire, no breakthrough. The Christmas cheer will be as empty as it’s always been.
Truth is, the most wonderful time of the year means nothing when it just hasn’t been the most wonderful time of our lives.
I think we can all agree that it gets so hard to see Jesus in our situations when He doesn’t remotely seem to be there. But on the last Christmas before the 2020s, I believe it’s time to take out a story from the scariest moment of my year, when half my face was suddenly paralysed from a condition called Bell’s Palsy.
To anyone who’s struggling to find light in the darkness, who’s lost love, joy, peace or hope in the uncertain and unexpected, who’s just scared that things will never get better – this is for you.
“So my right ear has been hurting a lot since yesterday afternoon,” I had texted my cell leader after work on Tuesday, August 27. I had just flown back from a mission trip to Japan two days before, exhilarated from the adventure but thoroughly exhausted. “Should I be seeing a doctor?”
Like the good doctor she is, she advised me not to ignore the pain as I had been intending to and to have my ears checked for potential infection. Slightly disgruntled that she had not saved me a trip and long wait at the clinic, I stopped by my neighbourhood GP the next morning before work – only to be sent back home with an MC and antibiotics for my swollen eardrums and the early onset of a very bad flu.
I had lunch with my parents, then proceeded to brush my teeth for a post-medication nap. This is the first scene I will never forget: casually gargling my mouth and watching water squirt out on the right. Staring at the mirror, confused, I tried again with more water – only to see it escape in a smooth jet whenever I gargled to the right cheek. The right side of my lips just would not seal.
I can still hear my panicked voice. “Mum…” she was just standing outside the bathroom. “Am I having a stroke?” Five words that would immediately get your mother’s attention at the independent age of 30.
She barged in, ready to assure me that I was okay like all mothers do, and I demonstrated the problem. “But the right side of my body feels fine – no numbness,” I said, clenching and unclenching my right fist, hoping to also convince myself.
A well-practised look of calm passed over her face. “Maybe you have cerebral palsy,” she lightheartedly declared and left the toilet, a wordless signal that she did not think anything serious was happening. Unfortunately, she would later be proven right about half of that diagnosis.
Comforted by her response, I headed to bed, telling myself the gargle would probably be fine by dinnertime. It was not. Something was really wrong.
Lying on my bed, ear still aching, I described to Google my symptoms in the best way I knew how: facial muscle weakness from sinus. At this point, I was certain it all had to do with the sniffling since Japan. My right eye had been watering uncontrollably since that morning at the doctor’s. My sinus irritation was probably causing everything on the right side of my face to be affected.
It came up right at the top: Bell’s Palsy. No way did I have something so severe, I remember thinking. A family friend had been diagnosed with that earlier in the year, and I had briefly heard my parents mentioning how her face had been partially paralysed for months.
But most of the search results pointed to Bell’s, and as I glanced through the list of symptoms, one made me stop dead in my tracks – excessive tearing due to the inability to shut your eye on the affected side. This will always be the last conscious moment of my “before” – I jumped out of bed and ran to my bedroom mirror, looked at my face and shut my eyes. The right one remained open. I could no longer blink it.
In the next few hours, I would watch the right side of my smile, my ability to flare my right nostril and raise my right eyebrow disappear, potentially lost forever.
What do you do when tragedy confronts your destiny?
I had just turned 30 in May and had been believing for the Lord to release me into the next strength of my ministry with Him. What did this all mean for that now? Medically, most people make a full recovery from Bell’s, but it could take anywhere from two weeks to two years, I was told. Very encouraging.
I was suddenly hearing of so many cases from friends and friends of friends, some who never fully regained their pre-Bell’s faces, others who had to take many supplements and non-Western medications to bring their facial muscles back to life. People were out of action for months, quarantined for rest in the light of unguaranteed healing. Deep breath. Okay.
And then there was the actual disability I now had to contend with.
Within the next few days of my official diagnosis, it was evident how many facial muscles are required for the actions one thinks about the least.
I couldn’t drink water too quickly, or it would leak from the weakened side of my lips; I couldn’t eat noodles because that required lip dexterity; I had to apply eye drops every hour as my right eye would dry out from not blinking; I had to tape my eye shut if I wanted to sleep or wash my face; I had a lopsided laugh… a lopsided expression for anything really.
But the most painful of all was looking at the photos I had taken just before everything had happened and thinking to myself – if only I knew those were my last good smiles.
I was living in my “after” as victoriously as I knew how, trusting God was still good and in control, trusting Heaven had it calculated and I was not going to be destroyed by this.
“I don’t understand why this is happening God,” I told Him, tears streaming down my lopsided face, my unclosing eye more obvious in prayer, “Of course I would rather not drink of this cup. I won’t deny that I want my face back.”
“But if this is the story You have chosen for the rest of my life, I will still praise You. I will still speak for You. I will still worship You with my life.”
And in the refrains of King of Kings, I heard His reply resounding in my heart: Because you still acknowledge Me when only half your face is left, I am receiving double the worship. You could have walked away from Me, but here you are, and Heaven rejoices. Half the face, twice the praise.
Beyond getting my face back I wanted that gift – I wanted what He had seen Bell’s could give me.
Hope was not going to be found in a promising statistic, or the 100 steroid pills I was given to take over 20 days. It wasn’t in a miracle, as much as I knew the Lord was fully willing and able. Because more than instant healing, I wanted to know what He was up to in His unchanging goodness and wisdom.
This was the God who delayed healing for Lazarus so that people could watch him come back to life, and the same God who would later hear His Son’s cries from the Garden of Gethsemane and still send Him to the Cross – not just for a miraculous resurrection but the payment of sin and purchase of eternal life for all mankind (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
In the faithful and powerful hands of our Great Defender, who has promised that no weapon forged against us will prevail (Isaiah 54:17), what we see as a curse can become a gift (Genesis 50:20). And beyond getting my face back I wanted that gift – I wanted what He had seen Bell’s could give me when His all-knowing eyes saw it coming my way – what tragedy could give my destiny.
I believe that’s what Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was about – when He asked for the cup of the Crucifixion to be taken from Him, yet that the Father’s will be done (Matthew 26:39). He had known the great suffering that awaited Him since He came from Heaven to earth on Christmas Day, and yet He still came. Because He always saw beyond and knew the Father was already there.
That’s what true hope is: Knowing we’ll find God there, however the story may turn.
As I write this exactly three months from the day I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, the only trace left of it is a slight weakness in my right eye that causes it to close faster than the left when I yawn. I like to think that it’s my own reminder of how I wrestled with God and prevailed (Genesis 32:28).
One other thing I carry with me from that season came from Day 9 of the ordeal. The weight of waiting for the tide to turn had been growing heavy with each passing day of little progress, and I could feel my faith slipping as I considered the mental wall up ahead. God, I don’t know how long more I can hold on, I prayed, spirit weary.
The next morning, I woke up hoping to see more positive changes to my face, but nothing had really changed. My heart sank and I weakly said that prayer again: God, I don’t think I can go on much longer if You don’t do something.
Right at that moment, a loud voice rang out overhead: “Early in the morning, Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan…”
My father was listening to his audio Bible in his study room and had forgotten to close the door.
I sat there, frozen. “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before…
“Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you…”
I started crying. God was right there with me.
And for the rest of the terrifying journey out of paralysis, this passage of the Israelites crossing the River Jordan in Joshua 3 would be the living Word that carried me through as the waters eventually parted in my own life and healing appeared slowly but surely – like the dry ground Israel would walk across.
If you’re standing in the middle of certain sadness this Christmas, take heart and choose to believe that Christ is there. Whether you see Him or not, Christ is in Christmas, just as He was in Bell’s, in the before, in the after, and in everything He has brought you and I through thus far.
Salvation arrived long before we recognised our Saviour. The waters stopped flowing long before the people could see it. We can hope for more, we can rejoice: The Lord will do amazing things among us. Salvation is here once again.
Blessed Christmas, friends.🎄