Advent Reflections: Love

There are times when I scorn English for not having a wide enough variety of words for the many concepts bundled into the word love. Maybe it used to. Older translations of the Bible give us charity where it means “care for one’s neighbor.” Christians, especially those of a scholarly persuasion, like to refer to Greek’s multitude of words for the different concepts of love: eros for romantic love, agape for unconditional/divine love, storge for familial love, etc. Modern English, however, has just the one word with countless meanings, covering everything from intense emotional bonding to simple preference (e.g., “I love pizza,” to which I say, same).

But I’m not here to discuss the linguistic shortcomings of one word of my native language, as much as I enjoy words and the study of them. I’m here for an abstract concept that is so difficult to puzzle through: Advent is about love.

And before you think I’m about to make a hard left turn directly into Hallmark movie territory, let’s think about this.

John 3:16 tells us “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s an easy verse to skip over. It’s so well-known among churchy folks that we tend to just zone out. “Yep, I know this one, moving on.” But do we know it? Do we get it?

Do we recognize that God’s love for the world is an active choice on his part? When Adam and Eve chose Satan’s fake promises over God’s real ones, God could have said “Screw it, this was a mistake. You’re on your own.” Even when he destroys everything but Noah and the contents of the ark, he chooses not to let humanity wander off with no hope of restoration. “For God so loved” is an active decision. It is not some passive squishy feeling, some vague sense of fondness. “For God so loved” does not represent anything we did, only the active, engaged choice of a good God.

This is the first way that Advent is about love: this divine rescue mission, where the only SEAL team that will suffice is God himself, given human form in Jesus Christ. The second way is in how God so graciously allowed the very humans he was en route to rescue to participate in the story.

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

The fourth Sunday in Advent focuses on the Annunciation. We know it well from Luke 1: Gabriel appears in little Nazareth and walks into Mary’s living room, and human history changes forever. I could spend all day talking about Mary’s beautiful responses, how she is the prime example of godly womanhood, and on and on. But let’s stop for a second and think about this:

God oversaw and orchestrated all of history to get the right place, the right time, and the right woman.

Everything from Adam and Eve’s failure was caused or allowed to happen so that Mary would be the one. There’s no indication in Luke that God sorted through a Rolodex of candidates. Just, boom, directly to Mary’s house, right on cue. “You have found favor with God.” Not earned favor. Not deserved favor. Found it. A gift given freely, asking her “Will you be a part of this?”

He asks us the same thing, though maybe not as impressively as an archangel showing up on our doorstep. When we get opportunities as believers to extend hospitality to the lonely and forgotten, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to warm the cold, to heal the sick, these are gifts from God, opportunities to participate with him in the birth of grace in this world–opportunities he is under no obligation to give us, except that because he chooses to love us, he wants us to choose to love others.

What a thing to ask of Mary, we think. And indeed, what a thing. “This is a big deal and a big job. Will you do it? Are you willing?”

God, in his goodness and wonderful wisdom, found the ideal candidate, because he formed her from the beginning. He knew she would be the mother of Christ, yet he still stopped to ask her, “Will you do this?” And out of what must be the purest love for her creator, Mary says “Absolutely.” She doesn’t know what it will entail. She knows it’ll be scary, will probably ruin her social standing. But God is worth it.

And speaking of love, we can’t leave out Joseph. I 100% believe he loved Mary–maybe not in a squishy romance-movie kind of way, but in the selfless way Ephesians 5:25 commands of men. He was preparing to take her into his home, to protect and care for her, when this bombshell drops, but instead of doing the “right” thing and throwing her under the bus, Matthew 1:18-25 tells us he planned to be discreet so as not to hurt her too much. Yet when the angel drops by to say “Hey, it’s all good, this is God on the move,” Joseph jumps right back into protecting and caring for the baby Christ, undoubtedly tossing his entire reputation out the window in the process.

Matthew tells us Joseph was a righteous man–upstanding in his community and a faithful adherent of Levitical law. We can assume Mary would likewise be called a righteous woman. God asks these two upstanding people who have the world before them, getting ready to grow their community by creating their own family, to throw it all away. And they do. Because they love God with heart, soul, and mind. And because they love God, they also love each other enough to stick together to do his will.

It didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t. It’s confusing and almost seems sloppy. After all, God has the power to just beam Christ down from heaven in his full royal glory. But we know God never does anything (or lets anything occur) without a purpose. Would we have paid attention if Jesus had showed up like he does in Revelation, on a white horse with crowns, plural? Nah. I wouldn’t have. There’s nothing to relate to in a god you’ve never seen before showing up like, well, a god. But a God who says “Hey, I’m on my way to live like you, to redeem your brokenness, to show you the path home”? That’s show-stopping. It’s easy to write off powerful people. But Miryam and Yosef’s kid? He’s doing miracles? He’s… God? Why?

Why, indeed. For God so loved the world. He chose the hard route to demonstrate his goodness and mercy. He picked the messy route, involving fallible mortals, to show us the road to come home. He came to our level to get us because we’d never make it otherwise. (I don’t know about you, but I screw up and sin so much. Every day. All the time. But God is good to offer me salvation and to develop me in Christ’s model every single day.)

Advent–and by extension, Christmas–is about love: the love of God, unmerited by us mortals, entirely merited by Christ but shared with us. When we respond to this love and accept Christ as our road home, that’s when we start building hope, faith, peace… and love. Through his mercy and kindness, he makes us conduits for his love into the world, even through simple things like feeding the hungry and comforting the distressed. Christ tells us that when we do things like this, we are doing it for him.

Advent shows us that the overpowering love of God must be met with repentance and belief, and our further response to receiving love is to give it. The world needs love, but not in the ways it thinks it does. It needs open displays of the love of God, which is so foreign to how mortal love and reciprocation works that it can only provoke a question of “Why do you do this?”

Because God so loved the world.

Merry Christmas.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

PS: God is so good to even tell us his plan in the names of the main players. Mary (Miryam) means “their rebellion.” Joseph (Yosef) means “God will add another son.” Because of our rebellion, God adds another (even the ultimate, the only) Son. And the name of this Son? Jesus (Yehowshuwa), meaning “God is salvation.” DIVINE MIC DROP.

Advent Reflections: Joy

Am I a happy person? Yes. No. Sometimes. I don’t know, it sort of depends.

Am I a joyful person? Yes.

Wait, what? How can I be joyful if I’m not always happy? Aren’t those the same thing?

Surprise: they really are not! Happiness is an emotion that can rise and fall like the barometer (and, honestly, is often tied to the same). Joy runs deeper than that. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. You know–love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest? The virtues of Advent are virtues that only the Spirit of God can truly, fully give us. The world’s experiences with and definitions of these things are but dim reflections of the real deal.

I know, I know, it’s confusing. But in summary: happiness is a tenuous emotion, while joy does not fluctuate like emotions do.

The third week in Advent is a beautiful time to remember this. Often called Gaudete Sunday, or Rejoicing Sunday, the Sunday of this week breaks through the gloom of our Advent ponderings to say rejoice, rejoice! Rejoice? What do we have to rejoice about, in a world of chaos and darkness? Well, a lot, actually. Let’s take a peek at this week’s lectionary readings, shall we? (Side note, I am using the ACNA 2019 lectionary, Year A. This may be different from other lectionaries.)

From Isaiah 35:

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

This passage goes on to talk about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the mute singing. Water in the wilderness, streams in the desert. The highway of God, the Way of Holiness.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 35:10)

Yeah, okay, that’s a lot to rejoice about. But for us in the 21st century, doesn’t it all seem a little… far-fetched? Like, “pfft, yeah, that’d be nice.” The world seems to be more chaotic than ever before, more filled with anger and destruction. Our leaders are weak, our people are miserable, our planet may literally be dying… How can you say “Be strong; fear not!” and tell me God will arrive with vengeance to save?

I can say it because it’s true. Psalm 146 tells us it is true. (I’m posting the whole thing, get ready.)

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in princes,
    in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
    on that very day his plans perish.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed,
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
    he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!

We can have joy in a dark and desolate era–whether a personal era or on a global scale–because the Lord sees. He sees and helps and reigns.

This is where we build on the previous themes of hope and faith. Hope holds out that one day all broken things and people will be healed. Faith says, “I believe you will do this, God, even if I don’t see it right now or it doesn’t happen the way or when I want it to.” Joy says, “God, you are good, you are mighty, and I praise you.”

Joy can very much exist in great sorrow. In fact, there are times that it seems like that’s the only place joy can grow. It is in suffering that we learn to see and rely on God’s goodness. James tells us, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. […] Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (5:7-8, 11). Hope breeds faith breeds joy because God is good.

I could write for days on this topic, but all I could say would boil down to those three words: God is good. He is not good in terms of human comprehension. He sees the big picture, the eternal picture. He knows that something that sucks for us right now will grow us into stronger Christ followers later, if we but exercise the faith to let him work on us. He knows that things we might desperately want may not be good for us, or if they are, maybe the timing is wrong, or we aren’t ready to receive it. Only he knows. But we can trust that he sees us, he hears us, he knows our pain and complaints, and he is busy behind the scenes.

No one on Earth has the power to make things right–or even the desire. No political figure, activist, governing body, doctor, lawyer, whatever can give people the hope, faith, peace, and joy they really need. Nobody can do that except God, who is the ultimate and purest Good.

God is good. He literally embodies goodness. Even in his vengeance, even in his justice, even in his mercy, even in his difficult lessons, he is good. He is good in my bad times and good times, when I am happy and when I am stuck in a depressive spiral. He is good when people I love are in pain and when they have the best day ever. He is good when the world is too much to bear and when it is heaven on earth. He is good when your favorite politician fails and when there’s too much plastic in the ocean. He is good, because he exists outside the limited human comprehension of good. His goodness is not dependent on his mood or our attitude, like our goodness is. We cannot jinx his plans. He is not startled by our mistakes or overwhelmed by our sin; he has already seen it all and knows it all, and he chooses to love us anyway. He is goodness. His goodness is the source of joy.

That’s it, that’s all I can say. It’s such a simple lesson, but one that I have to repeat to myself and will repeat until I act like I believe it, until I can pray fervently the way James 5 says to do, until my peace is not shaken by the tumult of the world, until I do not put my hope and faith in mortals.

God is good. He sees me, he knows me, he loves me. And he sees YOU and knows YOU and loves YOU. Individual you. Individual me. If, as Christ tells us, a sparrow can’t fall out of its nest without God noticing, how much more does he watch over us?

God. Is. Good. Rejoice, rejoice!

And that’s all there is to it.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

Advent Reflections: Faith/Peace

Sometimes I get confused by churchy things. Namely, why have I always heard the candle for the Second Sunday in Advent named as the Peace candle, but sometimes it’s called the Faith candle? At my own church this past Sunday, the theme of the candle, the lessons, and the sermon were all faith. So I sat there in the pew getting bogged down in seasonal minutiae and thinking, “Well, which is it? Is it faith or peace?”

The answer that came to me in the middle of a gentle, shepherding sermon that made me cry was “Yes.” Yes faith. Yes peace. Maybe the candle can mean either one because both are true. Perhaps peace comes from faith. Faith builds peace.

One thing that has always struck me as odd about American evangelical Christianity (the only form of which I have any intimate familiarity) is how it takes faith, a gift of the Spirit, and turns it into a to-do item on the Christianity checklist. It becomes mere mental assent or worse, something in par with willpower. “If I/you/we just have enough faith!” people sigh. “Things would work out then.”

Well, as it was pointed out to me in Sunday’s sermon, faith does not mean wishing really, really hard for our magical sky fairy to grant all our wishes. Faith is not bearing down and funneling all our strength into force of will. Faith, as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen” (CSB). It is not the same as hope (1 Corinthians 13 tells us this by listing faith and hope as two separate virtues) and is definitely not wishful thinking. Yet for all these definitions, faith is such a hard concept to grasp.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it easier to cling to faith as a sense of “Well, if I just believe hard enough.” It’s easier because it’s something that I myself can do. If I can fix my own problems, then I will know they are fixed because I did the work with my own hands. You see this in a lot of Christian-ish self-help material. “You have problems and you worry because you don’t have faith!” these things chirp. “This is all your fault! You could fix all your problems if you just have faith!”

You see the problem further illustrated when faith becomes synonymous with religion. “He/she is a person of faith,” we say. The federal government sponsors faith-based initiatives for community development. This further conflates the biblical concept of faith with the societal expectations of religion, which, again, puts the onus back on you to fix your own life by doing and saying the right things and just believing enough. And if something terrible befalls you, you get people on Facebook tut-tutting “You just didn’t have enough faith.” You didn’t, you don’t, you haven’t, you, you, you.

Oof. When did faith become a baseball bat with which to hit suffering people over the head? Even when the Bible talks about not worrying and instead having faith, it’s not meant like a baseball bat, and it certainly isn’t meant the way I have always taken it to mean, involving exhausting levels of personal effort. This is where understanding it the way it is meant to be understood becomes more and more difficult.

It’s difficult because it would be so much easier to say “Well, if I just believe hard enough, then X will happen.” It would. And it would be easier for us as finite mortals if it worked that way. Faith becomes difficult because it forces us to rely on someone we cannot physically see to handle issues that, for us, are immediate and pressing. So because I can’t get instant results, I stop asking. Then I wonder why my reliance on God falters and why I become jaded.

If faith is the reality of what is hoped for, then I assume faith begins with hope. Hope is that tiny voice that says “Things will be better someday maybe.” Faith builds on this, grows it, by saying “[A]ll things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, CSB). Even when it sucks. Even when there are no immediate results. Even when things go sideways and everything hurts and the world is upside down and oh God where are you? Hope says “Maybe things will get better.” Faith says “Even if they don’t, God is good and kind and he loves me, and this is working together for my eternal good.”

This is where I get tripped up most often. I have zero problems believing that God is good and kind–to other people. I see it in their lives and rejoice in it. Miraculous healing? Thanks be to God. Specific provision at the exact moment of need? Thanks be to God! Absolutely! Where it becomes tricky is thinking “God is good and kind to me.”

Sorry, what? Who am I that he should be mindful of me? He sent Christ to die for one speck of mortal existence whose time on this planet is but a blip on the timeline of all history. I’m not worth that. I’m an Enneagram Four; I am literally first in line to tell you that I am flawed and worthless, don’t bother with me, it’s not worth it–I’m not worth it.

But God’s kindness and goodness do not rely on my strength of will, my emotional fortitude, my good character, or my best behavior. God is kind and good because… he is kind and good. This is what faith, a gift given by his Spirit, helps us see. Even in our mortal suffering, God remains kind and good because that is his nature. Even when I feel inherently flawed, he continues to take my weak humanity and remake it to follow the pattern Christ made. I am flawed on my own, but Christ has given me immeasurable worth and given me his flawless nature. I know that I am invaluable to God, not because of anything I can offer but because of all that Christ has offered me. Even when it’s hard to believe it, to have an emotional connection or response to this truth, I still know it is true.

If hope forms faith, then this is how faith forms peace. It is in learning how to rely on God to be kind and good, to expect him to dispense his grace freely in all scenarios and seasons so that you will grow as a disciple of Christ, that peace arrives. I am constantly praying “Lord, help my unbelief,” and bit by bit, peace comes. Little by little, I learn that he will look after me. If he notices the wildflowers, which Christ tells us he does, then he notices me. Even if things don’t work out the way I want or I don’t get something I think I should have, I can be assured that he has seen and heard and is already on the move. He hears me sob the words of Psalm 70 and is on the way before the words leave my lips.

O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.

I make it a point here to say that faith, unlike what prosperity preachers will tell you, does not mean you or I will have a pain-free life of wealth and comfort. Christ himself tells us not to expect this. In John 16, he tells his disciples what to expect of a life of following him. He promises several things: the Holy Spirit will be our comforter and guide; we will weep and lament while the world rejoices; our sorrow will turn to joy; we can ask the Father for anything; we will be scattered; we will have tribulation. But, he says, “take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33). He also commands us to ask for what we need in his name, and we can expect that a Father who gives good gifts to his children will always give us exactly what we need, with some unmerited goodies besides.

If we pray for faith, he will grow our faith.

If we pray for peace, he will grow our peace.

If we pray for our daily bread, he will meet our needs.

This stuff is complicated and difficult, and I don’t profess to have any expertise in it, but he is faithful in all things, even when we don’t see the result immediately or it turns out differently from how we expected. We–I–can trust he sees the whole picture and always operates with the end in mind, which is the formation of us into mini Christs, sanctified and holy, glorifying him.

May we always respond with gratitude to our kind and good God, who gives us faith and peace, in Advent and always.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

Advent Reflections: Hope

Christmas decorations caught my eye earlier than usual this year–not literally, but the discussion of them blew through social media like a tornado through a haystack. Questions abounded: Is November 1 too early to decorate? Are people who think so nothing more than mean people that hate happiness? Do people who don’t think so deserve to get sick of the lights and glitter by the first week of December? And what about Thanksgiving? Are we just going to forget a day of turkey and football?!

I have always been solidly in the camp of withholding Christmas decor until at least Black Friday. I like to enjoy each holiday as it comes. But what I noticed this year was that, over and over, people arguing for early Christmas decorations came back to one theme: It makes me happy to decorate. I need to be happy.

Oh my God, I realized, that’s it, that’s exactly it. It’s not a question of when is “too soon” to decorate; the problem is that so many people are using Christmas and its baubles to numb pain they may not even realize they have. “The world sucks! Let’s put up tinsel!”

But this isn’t a solution to pain. It’s narcotization. It’s leaning on something external to soothe an internal misery, and I don’t think the vast majority of people realize they’re doing it, as they stand in the check-out line at Hobby Lobby, their carts overflowing with green branches and red ribbons yet their faces sour and grim. The world sucks. But is a red bow going to fix that? Maybe for a minute. Maybe for a month. But not forever.

Enter Advent, an oft-forgotten season of the church year that many Christians don’t even know exists. I know I didn’t for a long time. I knew the word, and I had heard of Advent calendars as a means to count down to the big day. But Advent the season? My low-church Protestant background didn’t account for that, not with Christmas trees going up the day after Thanksgiving and carols jumping in the song lineup for the following Sunday.

It’s hard for me to explain Advent in a nutshell. If I tried, it would go something like “It’s a season to prepare our hearts for Christ’s arrival, both as the baby in Bethlehem and as the King of Kings on the last day.” It’s not an incorrect summary, but it’s so weak compared to what Advent is and what Advent does. (My point in this post, however, is not to get into the liturgical technicalities of Advent. You can check out resources on that here and here, and some resources for marking the season here.)

Advent is a longing, waiting time. It is a time to beg God “How long will you delay?” It is a time to remember that he, in the person of Jesus Christ, has already touched our world and will return one day to fix everything. Advent holds the wailing and grief of our shattered world in one hand and the brilliant hope of “thy kingdom come” in the other. Already and not yet.

Advent forces us to slow down, to look our pain in the eyes, to see it and name it. No longer is our grief and suffering veiled behind smooth jazz renditions of carols at the craft store. There are no glittering lights in Advent to distract us from what hurts. There is no narcotization in Advent.

But there is hope.

The first candle of the Advent wreath is, fittingly, the Hope candle. We light this candle, knowing our brokenness, knowing the agony of human existence, and also knowing that we are seen by the One who entered this world once before to be just like us, to come screaming into the world he was meant to save, the Lord of Light dressed as the illegitimate son of a teenager and her carpenter fiancé. The hope of Advent forces us to look at Christ and see that he has saved the world through his death and resurrection and is currently saving the world through his Spirit, left behind to be our Comforter until Christ returns to reign on Earth.

“That’s great and all,” you say, “but what does that mean for me right now?”

It means it won’t always be like this. It won’t always hurt. The tears we cry now will be dried up in the kingdom to come, soothed forever. Through Christ, we have hope that our pains and struggles, while yeah, they suck, will not stay with us forever. Some of them will be relieved here on Earth. Others, we have to wait, and wait, and wait, yet with the promise of complete redemption. We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved. Already and not yet.

Advent forces us to embrace the tension of this. It asks us to acknowledge the bitterness in ourselves and in our world, but it asks us not to wallow in our misery but to put it in the hands of Christ, to say, “This hurts, this sucks, please fix this.” And the hope of Advent gathers us up warmly as we hear Christ reply, “I will.” Then we, bursting with this hope, go out among our neighbors to share hope and grace where we can, how we can–with a smile, a dollar, a meal.

Advent is not a season for rejoicing, and yet it is. It’s for lamenting the hurt of existing while also looking forward to a day when all is made right. It’s not for singing Christmas carols, but it is for singing songs of waiting, of longing, of hopeful anticipation of our current and final redemptions.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, the words go.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Stephanie, too.

Advent takes this refrain and pleads it, over and over, until we are screaming it, replacing “captive Israel” with whatever we need to be ransomed. We do. I do. And Christ is faithful to do so. This is our hope, the hope of Advent.

I pray you sit with this during a season when the rest of the world tries to hide pain behind shopping, feasting, and decorating. I pray we are all able to look at a world that lives in the painful tension of Advent all year long and say, “Christ is hope. Let me show you him.”

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 2019)

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

Reflections on Hope | The First Sunday of Advent

[I posted this on Facebook this evening, so I figured I would post it here, too.]

I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression and moderate anxiety in October 2012, after a roommate encouraged me to talk to one of the counselors at Union. There. I said it. Six years I have struggled with this plague, this disease, in which my own brain frequently tries to sabotage me because the chemicals that support healthy, normal neurological functioning just don’t have the quantity to be… normal.

I hate the word “neurotypical.” It reminds me that there is a level of mental functioning out there that I cannot obtain but only ever come close to. At least I can come close, thanks to self-care, the cognitive techniques I learned in therapy, and, yes, medication. But that nirvana labeled “neurotypical” feels so very far away at times, as if even on my best day I’m still scrabbling through the muck of existence while people with properly functioning brain chemicals float on clouds and drink champagne. I don’t know what that’s like.

Human existence in general is a lot like this sometimes. Each of us feels lost in the mire while we look around and see others making it. Even if we know, cognitively, that everyone else is as screwed up as we are, it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to see people’s photos on Instagram and think about them screaming at their kids or worrying over finances or crying in the parking lot before entering their office, or, or, or. But maybe we are all just one #blessed away from falling into complete disarray. Our normal is not normal at all. It’s dysfunctional and painful and exhausting. We are weary with no rest in sight. I do not know what “neurotypical” feels like. The rest of us have no idea what real “normal” feels like.

This is the world that Christ came into–a world of bitterness and tired humans, a world so broken that even our bodies and brains don’t work as they should. This is the point of the first week of Advent, when we light the Hope candle in our churches and homes. We light this candle, remembering that it was this same chaos and darkness–a different era, but the same fears and broken people–that welcomed Christ. We hope because as he came the first time to remind us of God’s presence, he will come a second time someday to heal the brokenness once and for all.

He could have done it already. That’s within his power. He could have waved his hand and installed utopia two millennia ago. He could have touched my brain this morning and permanently cleared out the cobwebs and the low serotonin levels. But he hasn’t yet, and I think it’s so we can learn how to hope.

Hope is not some fluffy, feel-good sentiment that makes us deliriously bounce through life, unaware of pain. Hope is a very gritty, persistent thing, something we must decide to grasp. Hope is what we feel when we look into the shadows of our angry world–or our own lives and our own pain–and call out, “The light is coming, just hold on.” Hope is the knowledge that it will not always be like this because the God who came to Earth in the tiny infant body of the Christ Child is going to fix it. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow, or next week, or a thousand years from now–but it will be someday.

Hope is the shaking arm clinging to the cliff edge screaming hold on, hold on, help is coming. It won’t always be like this. There will come a day when I am healed, when I no longer struggle with getting out of bed, when I don’t seclude myself from people because I just can’t bear seeing anyone, when I no longer take a pill before bed that tries to help my brain chemicals do the things they’re meant to do. Hope is knowing that, one day, I will run to the arms of my Savior, and he will wipe away the last tears of earthly existence and welcome me to true normalcy.

This is hope, the heart and point of Advent. We hold on because the promise of healing is stronger than the pain that crushes us in its vise-grip. I hold on for the restored mind and body that awaits me in the New Heaven and New Earth that Revelation promises. I hold on because Christ, my hope, holds me.