Reflections on Christmas

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Christmas comes by every year, and the familiarity with Jesus’ birth has an inoculating effect on the story’s beauty and mystery. Christmas stories range between inspirational and downright weird. Example: the other day I was at a church service during which angels started to the fly from the wings of the auditorium to the stage (via tight rope, of course). It was quite the shock. I sympathize with Rachel Held Evans on how disappointing it is that Christmas can so easily become about our “rights”—our right, our authority, to sing a song with Jesus’ name, to have a nativity scene in public, to say Merry CHRISTMAS emphatically to everyone.

The arrogance of the Christmas propaganda gets to me, and this Advent reflection by Henri Nouwen helped me articulate why: “God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need… I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the many ‘worlds’ is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being. Often we do not know that the Christ child is within us. When we discover him we can truly rejoice.”

In my life as a Christian, I have always thought that weakness and vulnerability have been states to conquer. I have faced this pressure, perhaps from myself, from the church, or in our culture, to arrive at some elusive point. To reach this sub-human state in which I can quote any Bible verse on command and be strangely excited at all times. I have been grasping for this supposed point of arrival, and it hasn’t come. I have lived my life waiting and never finding, hoping that after this therapy session, hearing this song, reading this book, saying this prayer… maybe the clouds would fade away and I would be free. I grow frustrated at God and ask, “Why? Why am I still dealing with all of this? Why won’t you answer my prayers?”

Henri Nouwen’s words have helped me refocus on the message of God giving up power and becoming vulnerable in the form of a person. What if there is not this single “point” of solace or arrival in this world? What if the good news of great joy is that God meets us where we are poor and weak? Maybe poverty, weakness, and vulnerability are not states that should be overcome over the course of the Christian life. Maybe these states are to be cultivated and nourished. Maybe powerlessness is the seed of hope that enables God to come and dwell.

It is hard to imagine God loving me and caressing me in my vulnerability and hurting. And yet, that is exactly what God came to do for the world. God heard the groans, the cries, of his hurting people. They must have filled rivers with their tears of oppression over hundreds of years and, at best, were clinging onto a sliver of hope for redemption. Christmas is the birth of hope, that death and suffering are not the final word. Christmas whispers that God is waiting in the darkness.

The anticipation—the agonizing waiting—is excruciating. I wanted to be healed yesterday. The process of hoping and waiting is tedious and long, and I beg for it to end. Similarly, Jesus did not come in the exact time that others wanted. He could have come the day after sin entered into the world. But he didn’t. God is a god of patience and grace. In contrast, I have my manic to-do lists, and if I don’t finish everything on that list in approximately 2 hours, I get stressed out. His timing and perspective on life are so different from mine.

All will be fulfilled in due time, but in the present, God has invited me to walk with him in all the crevices of life. I am thankful that it is in the crevices, rather than in my triumphant victory lap on a unicorn, that God reaches out his hand. Limping, wincing in pain, I take it.

It seems so absurd that God would want to love me in all my weakness, as Brennan Manning articulates in this awesome video. God loves me not as I will be, or as I should be, but as I am. I’m not this manic Proverbs 31-quoting, frenetic cookie-baker, superwoman Christian. Most likely, my old issues will swirl about and leave imprints and scars for the rest of my life. If my journey thus far is any indication of the future, I will be bedraggled and hurting, plagued with questions that need answers. Maybe God is not as set on me conquering my “issues” or “flesh” as I am. Maybe God loves me– even in all my complexity, inability to settle with superficiality, and the deep feelings that must be heard and understood. Could that be okay? Could there be something profoundly beautiful in accepting that?

More than that, it is this place of humble waiting, this patient vulnerability, where God wants me to meet others. It is so refreshing thinking that I don’t have to be above, or better than, others in order to meet them where they are. I love how this video shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. The message of Christmas shows that God is an empathetic God. God felt where his people were hurting, and he climbed down the ladder into the cave. Moreover, it is with that same sentiment that we are to descend into the lowly places to meet others. If even God is willing to go to the lowly places, shouldn’t I also go there as well? The process of encountering God in a state of wounded-ness is holy, but there is also something redemptive in doing that for someone else.

I find great hope that God will never tire of me saying, “Daddy, I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do.” I never have to worry that I’m not together enough. God can hold all of me because he is everlasting and powerful, and I am not too much for him. At the same time, he can truly understand what I feel because he has experienced what I have. He is in anguish about the same things that give me anguish. Jesus, too, wept.

Christmas is not a phase to get to the “punch line” (the death and resurrection of Jesus). Christmas is beautiful and holy in and of itself. Its passing every year has lessons to teach the world. It helps me understand and value the vulnerable child in my heart and spread that to others.

May Christ’s deep love and empathy envelope you this Christmas. May you find beauty in the Christmas story. May you rest in that today, tomorrow, and every other day of the year.

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7 Ways to Improve Your Life

Did I get your attention?

To be transparent with you, this post is not going to outline 7 ways by which you can improve your life. However, it will be related to the sentiment behind the idea, specifically the prevalence of keys/ steps in the world of self-help.

All of my life, I have wanted to find simple solutions to complex problems in my life. I was that teenager who read “7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens” in her spare time. I have gravitated toward things like cognitive-behavioral therapy because CBT is neat, clean, and organized. I want to believe that if I make this chart or do this exercise or read this book, I will feel better. That if I follow all of the steps, I will be fixed. Yet, I found myself doing all of these things and still having this angst inside of me, this abyss so deep that the pain has seemed to penetrate every part of me. Formulas couldn’t explain that.

While self-help books, simple steps, and formulated approaches to wellness help a lot of people, and they have helped me to an extent, in the end, I have found them simplistic. They do not tell the full story. My life has not gone A + B + C. It has been like an avalanche, with zombies and monsters and surprises, and “how-to’s” or “steps” do not do it justice. Moreover, when I would read these books or would practice DBT skills on Saturdays, I would feel a sense of frustration and hopelessness. If these empirically supported, or award-winning, strategies don’t provide lasting change in my life, is there something wrong with me? Is there any hope for me in life? (Caveat: I think that steps, keys, CBT, DBT, etc. have their place, and if that works for someone, great. I don’t mean to knock these approaches to wellness. They can help reduce distress when people are hurting. That is great. What I want to suggest is that these approaches they are not in-and-of themselves sufficient for complete healing, at least they haven’t been for me).

I have been reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection (a fabulous book, if I may give a shameless plug), and I was struck by this passage (context: she is talking about our culture): “We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty ‘how-to’ list for happiness. I don’t fit that bill. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work” (p. 35).

In my life, I have found her words to be true. I haven’t wanted to be uncomfortable in my path to healing. In fact, I have taken extreme measures to ensure temporary comfort, and most of them– okay, pretty much all of them– okay, all of them– have gone up in flames. However, I have found that discomfort, albeit painful, is necessary, for change.

Simple answers assume that with education, with this chart, with this book, with a tap of our red slippers, we can bypass the work, and who wouldn’t want that? Brene Brown continues that we face such struggles in our culture, and yet, we are so “educated.” We live in a word of Google, twitter, CNN breaking news, and Wikipedia. For any given problem, there is probably an app for that. I know that my caffeine intake is probably unhealthy, and I could read all the articles in the world on how and why to change my caffeine consumption, but I don’t. For the most part, people know what is healthy and advantageous, and yet they don’t do it. Why?

Perhaps because life, growth, change, and self-improvement cannot be boiled down to a simple blueprint. There is a lifetime of letting in, letting go, feeling, and doing. Once I think I have figured something out in my life, a new variable enters the mix. It is complicated and messy, so messy. Being vulnerable with others is messy.

At seminary, I learned to “live with the tension,” in the discrepancy between the present reality and the shalom of God. It is hard to sit with that, to live in the questions, not to offer pat solutions, but to be present in the messiness. I believe that there is hope, and there is healing, but I also don’t think it can be reduced in a formulaic fashion.

As Marya Hornbacher wrote in the book, Wasted:

“There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect… There is no other way.”

Much of my life I feel like I’m wading through a mud pit to find this elusive sense of wholeness. That is the reality. Therapists have often told me, “Sit with your feelings.” I hate sitting with my damn feelings. I have spent most of my life trying to avoid doing just that. Sometimes recovery feels like I am on a roller coaster, dropping, dropping, and I can barely catch my breath. I hate it. Although I hate it, I am still doing the work.

There is no game plan that tells me how my life, and recovery, should go, nor do I want one. I don’t want a cheerleader or a fortune teller. What I need are grace and love. I want people to be there with me, who sit with me, who hold my hand, as I trek through the mud. I won’t promise that doing the work won’t be messy, but I think– I hope– it will be worth it.