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.

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Behold Your King

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Desiring God posted the above image on their Instagram a couple days ago. (This is my crappy screenshot version.) You could have heard me screeching from the rooftops with agreement. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, because I am exhausted by the efforts of “women’s ministry” to pump me up and inflate me with my own self-worth.

Insisting to me in the name of Jesus that I am a jewel or a princess does not assuage the nagging sense that I am not. I am human. I know my weaknesses and my sins. Lifting me up to say “Look at yourself, you’re amazing and beautiful and so capable” does not address the emptiness of the human soul.

How can you say I am amazing when I refused to help the poor, or I was unkind to the cashier, or I said something hateful to a friend, or I had cruel thoughts about that homeless person?

Women are hard on themselves, often unfairly. We know this. But we, like all humans, also know in our deepest cores that we are not good and wonderful and amazing if left to our own devices. We are exactly like all humans, as selfish and wicked as everyone else, tempered only by social mores and childhood instruction of right vs. wrong.

So when I hear one of the dime-a-dozen Lifeway-brand women teachers tell me how incredible I am, I respond with disbelief, if not outright mockery and scorn. Do not lie to me. I know what I am.

This is the way the world encourages its women. Christian teaching should not sound like a Dove ad campaign. It should not denigrate the females of the church, but it should also not inflate self-worth past the level of healthy self-respect (love thy neighbor as thyself, after all) into self-worship.

Christian women should leave a conference not thinking “I am amazing” but rather “Jesus is amazing.”

The church has forgotten the meaning of the gospel, especially when it comes to the instruction of its women. The gospel is not solely personal salvation. It is not fire insurance to keep yourself from the pits of hell. It is not limited to a nebulous “me and Jesus” spirituality that disavows the community of the local church congregation.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, is the announcement of the King of Kings establishing his reign and forever changing the order of the world.

It is the story of how God promised to redeem humanity from our wickedness and create a new kingdom, a kingdom that operates not according to human whims but according to divine justice.

Is is the story of the King of Heaven, capable of repaying humanity for its rebellion with infinite wrath, setting aside that wrath to personally come down and say “I will give my life to make you part of my family.”

This is not a story that should be met with “Girl, you are a precious jewel in the crown of God!” No. This is a story that should be met with awe and worship, with falling to our knees in adoration of the goodness and mercy of God, rather than sitting back in our pews with smug self-righteousness.

Because here’s the deal. Without the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ, you and I are trash. We are sinful creatures, predisposed to pursue our own cravings no matter what. Wouldn’t you behave selfishly and wickedly if you could–if you had nothing else telling you not to? Don’t lie to yourself. Because I do not lie to myself–I know what I am outside the grace of Christ–I do not need a Beth Moore or a Lysa TerKeurst or anybody else telling me how pure and precious and valued I am. Because I am not.

Apart from Christ.

It is only through the finished work of Christ on the cross of Calvary that I have any worth at all. I have been redeemed into the family–the kingdom–of King Jesus by his work and his righteousness, not by mine. I am valued by God because he values Christ his Son, and I have accepted the salvation he has offered me.

But like I said, the gospel is not solely a personal salvation narrative. No, the kingdom of heaven upends everything humanity knows as “normal.” There is no “Blessed are the rich, the famous, and the powerful.” It is “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the mourners.” The world says “Hoard everything you can and protect you and yours.” The kingdom of heaven demands “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” and “Give all you have to the poor.” The world says “Save yourself.” The gospel says “Whoever loses his life for the sake of the gospel will find it.”

And at the end of the story? Oh, man. At the end, Jesus returns with his angelic armies and remakes the world into the kingdom of heaven on earth, where justice flows like rivers and there is true peace on earth. He brings his glory from above to rescue his creation.

My only response to that is worship, to fall on my face and cry “Holy, holy, holy.” You cannot tell me that the most important lesson for me as a Christian woman is to hear about how beautiful and precious I am. No! If not for Christ, I would burn in hell and miss the glory and beauty of the Savior. I would not know the tender love steering my heart toward him. I would not know the eternity-bridging mystery of partaking in the Eucharist. I would still be broken and helpless to save myself.

But my self-esteem would be great.

May I never worship myself, and may we as Christian women learn to sit in worshipful awe of our King, without whom we are nothing.

Per aspera ad astra,
Stephanie

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