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It happened again the other night. At the graduation recognition ceremony for our friend Liz, a sound technician stepped to the auditorium microphone just moments before the program began. He cleared his throat. “Testing!” he said quietly into the mic. “1…2…3…testing!”

It’s awkward to test equipment with several hundred people looking on, but it has to be done. And taking tests aren’t exactly a barrel of fun either.

Earlier this evening I completed a two-hour final exam for my grad class – the first academic test I have taken in over 35 years. All day long I felt a frisson of anxiety running up my spine, so annoying that if my fear had been a person I would have slapped it. 58 years old and I’ve got test-taking anxiety all over again? Sheesh…gimme a break. Anyone old enough to read this post knows what real tests in life are like, and they are infinitely harder than the six essay questions I was handed this evening. You can’t study for them either.

But you can prepare.

So many people beloved to us are facing real tests as this year ends – trials of the hardest kind. Several couples we know are estranged or have children facing divorce. More than a few close friends are urgently seeking employment, and the wait is lengthening from months into years. A couple in our church family lost their college-age son, their only child, just last week.

As one friend quietly said when he heard this last news: “There are no words. This is an unspeakable loss.”

So how do we prepare for the real tests of life? I guess it’s a little like what I did to get ready for my exam this evening. You review what you’ve learned in the past. You focus on the needs of the present. You lean into the faith that sustains you.

And you reach out to take hold of the hands waiting to grasp yours.

“Holding,” writes Karen Mains in Comforting One Another, “is one of the primary works of the church. We must learn how to hold one another well, with mercy, because in doing this work, we do the work of God in the world. We hold when we take people into our embrace. We hold when we take people into our hearts. We hold when we take them into our schedules, our lives, our homes. We hold when we keep vigil with them in deathwatches. We hold when we take them into our prayers.”

Who needs you to hold them this Advent season? “Your care for others,” Jesus said in Luke 9:48, “is the measure of your greatness.”

Doing great things for God is not about positions and possessions and paychecks. It is about protecting those who are hurting, hastening to surround them with a protective screen of prayer and provision. The word protect comes from the Latin pro (before) + tegere (to cover) – meaning to cover someone before they can be further harmed.

If you’re not in a time of testing right now – glory hallelujah. Celebrate like I did when I turned in my exam this evening. But don’t forget to look around you for those who are still being tested. Reach out a hand and pull them into your heart, your life, maybe even your home.

At the very least, pull them into your prayers.