I love my mother, but I can’t give her what she wants. She wants to go home, but for now she has to stay in a nursing home. Mum, 91, and suffering from dementia, had a bad fall a few months ago and now needs constant nursing supervision and care. There are not that many good nursing homes in Penang and we thank God that we found one for her. But she has to be in this home for the foreseeable future. (To give you an idea of her present condition, she needs three people to help her shower.)

On her good days she is clearer about who she is and where she is, and she misses home. That is when she asks me to take her home. It breaks my heart. I wish I could. She has resided in her own house for more than 40 years. She told me that the only time she would leave her home is at her funeral. (She is a feisty lady with a wicked sense of humour.) Now she has to live in a nursing home. Again, I am confronted by the limits of what I can do.

It seems life is a long education about what I can and cannot do. My first real confrontation with the limits of my power was when Hee Ling, my first wife, was stricken with lung cancer. I wanted her to live. I wanted her to be whole. I needed her, and the boys needed their mother, but the Lord took her home — a rude and painful lesson about the limits of what I can do. You’re just not in control of the universe.

But there is a lesson here. Coming to terms with the limits of our powers (hello, we are not God) opens the door for the Lord to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. This Advent I am reminded of God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7–10 NIV)

[I will forever be grateful to the late Dr Klaus Bockmuehl, one of my seminary profs, for helping me to appreciate the significance of this passage.]

There was no way God’s people could have freed themselves from the clutches of Pharaoh. But God came down to rescue His people, to do for them what they couldn’t do for themselves.

Advent reminds us that God knows our needs and He comes as Messiah and Suffering Servant to rescue us. But I guess He cannot rescue those who think they can rescue themselves. He has to bring us to a point when we say, “I can’t do this, Lord you take over the wheel.” I think I am a slow learner because He has to bring me to this point again and again.

The fact is we are all in deep excrement. Just scroll through the news of the day. But the good news of Advent is that Christ came to get His hands dirtied and bloodied to rescue us “from the miry clay”. So this Advent I choose again to look to Him for rescue.

No, I can’t save mum. Heck, I can’t even solve my own problems. But He can and He came. And He is coming again. So I surrender mum and the universe to Him. Often, I don’t understand what He is up to or what His timing is. But He’s driving. And I know where we are headed.

I waited patiently for the Lord;

he turned to me and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the slimy pit,

out of the mud and mire;

he set my feet on a rock

and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth,

a hymn of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear the Lord

and put their trust in him.

(Psalm 40:1–3 NIV)