For the Anxious at Christmas

We wrestled our way home through post-Thanksgiving traffic where all the cheery thankfulness of our nation had by then dissipated and was replaced by a mostly a grumpy, rushed, chaotic nation (of which I was chief after one too many reckless driver cut us off). To add insult to injury, while driving we listened to a sermon from an unknown preacher on anxiety, which was mostly just seven reasons you shouldn't be anxious and a lot of shouting. Thirteen hours into what was supposed to be an eleven hour drive, my anxiety was high.

And then today, it's all photos of homes decked for Christmas already and Cyber Monday deals and an empty refrigerator and three article deadlines + a book review for a book I haven't gotten through yet. Another five opportunities for anxiety. 

I've always been a more mellow sort, more prone to depression than anxiety, but I think two things happen as we age. The first is suffering adds to suffering adds to suffering. And the second is we are faced with a choice: to face the suffering or to medicate ourselves into unfeelingness. December is a month ripe for the latter. It is the one month of the year we indulge every good and beautiful thing and many distorted and disordered things. Perhaps it is all childhood and magical and sparkly and warm in your sphere, and if so, enjoy it. But that is not the reality for most Americans, or the rest of the world. There is a reason reports of anxiety rise leading up to the holidays. Folks are either completely alone or they are engulfed in the mess of materialism. Folks are in poverty or they are in excess. Folks are mourning or they are overwhelmed. 

Almost every person I know is suffering right now. Perhaps they're masking it with trite conversation or seasoned optimism, but the cares of this world are pressing against them in pain and in loss, in grief and in dashed hope, in loneliness and in fear. In our most vulnerable moments we admit it, but in December it is easy to bake another cookie, hang another garland, play another classic, and wrap another gift, to forget, for just a moment. 

Last night Nate and I watched a movie a friend recommended, and in it, one father who lost his child says to another father who has just lost his child, "You have to feel it, press into it, remember the memories. If you try to run away, to not feel it, you'll begin to forget." I wept when I heard that because there are a lot of memories in my life I've tried to run away from. A lot of feelings I've neglected to feel. And a lot of emotions I've stuffed to the bottom. I'm in a season where those are being dug up and stared at, by me and others, and I have to remember the dark before the dawn. December is always difficult for me, but this year I sense it heavier than ever. 

The only remedy for my anxiety is to remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice. Remember my God in flesh who was born in poverty and lavished with the gifts of a king, who was a baby boy born when all the other baby boys were killed, who was refused the inn and found haven with the animals, who knew loss and grief and loneliness and death. And then, when I can and only when I can, rejoice.

There is no remedy for anxiety except this: for the anxious, Christmas

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* I know for some folks the mental illness of anxiety is debilitating, and there is no reductionistic answer to that kind of anxiety. Medication is a common grace, and one we should all feel free to use if it works for us. Also counseling (which is a common grace I'm partaking in these days). Also good, healthy foods and routines. 

The Dark Grows Bright: Advent reading suggestions

Next week is Thanksgiving and then we're a month out from Christmas. The Christmas season and I have had a strained relationship for a long time. I love what we're celebrating, but I've struggled for years to enjoy the season. Decembers, for me, tend to be dark months. In my wrestle with depression over the years, it usually has spiked in December. I dislike clutter and busyness, and sometimes the whole season can feel busy and cluttered. When most families were gathering, it seemed for years like mine was splintering. Singleness felt prolonged, while all my friends were celebrating first, second, third, and tenth Christmases with their spouses and babies. 

After years of these persistent wrestles, I began to realize the way through, for me, was to slow the season down, to declutter it, to simplifying it, to use restraint instead of excess. Celebration doesn't have to be about excess or indulging. It can be simply about narrowing our focus in on One Thing: the Christ-child and his birth into a fractured world. Advent is very literally about the dawning of light. It is meant to be dark and yet getting lighter. When I began to understand, and practice Advent, instead of just Christmas, I felt my hope grow, the light grow brighter. 

Narrowing my focus over the past five or six years has been really helpful to me in this time of great angst. Staying home more, going to bed earlier, saying no more, simplifying gift-giving. And also about adding in some things that help me on the slow plod through December. 

Lighting Advent candles. Keeping our gift list to a minimum (Want, Need, Wear, Read), giving more attention to hand-written cards and less to fancy wrapping paper. A smaller, unimpressive tree and more quiet evenings beside it. More reading of advent books around the dinner table and fewer parties out. These are things I did not wait for marriage for, either, and things we're not waiting for children for. These rhythms begin now. If God gives us children, they might change some, but I'd venture not. Just as when God gave me marriage, they changed some, but not much. 

This week is the time to nail your Advent Reading down in time for the first Sunday of Advent. Here are the four I've used in the last four years, and a discount code for one for this year. 

I read Behold the Lamb of God, by Russ Ramsey, in 2013, and I think this will always be a favorite of mine. This is appropriate for reading aloud if you've got young children and nearly every entry is reaming with the light of Christ to come. Russ works through all of Scripture to the birth of Christ, showing Christ in all of Scripture. It's beautiful. 

I read The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp, in 2014, and what I loved about this were the opportunities to reflect on each entry with the provided questions. This worked well for me as an unmarried person because I was doing it by myself. The questions are thought-provoking and, for the season in which I found myself, helpful in preparation for a lonely Christmas. 

For Nate's and my first Christmas, in 2015, we read The Dawning of Indestructible Joy, by John Piper. That December was one of the hardest I can remember, bookended by heart-break, sadness, and suffering. Reading this book about indestructible joy was so helpful. I remember many nights, sitting at the table, reading this aloud and struggling to believe that kind of joy would ever be possible. It was such a helpful book in a season of suffering. 

Last Christmas, 2016, we read Watch for the Light, essays from Dillard, Bonhoeffer, Donne, L'Engle, and more. I love collections of essays, but sometimes you've got to chew the meat and spit out the bones. I'd say that was the case with this one. This might be a good read if you have older children or no children. There is food for discussion, and last Christmas we had nothing if not plenty of time for discussion. I do remember we skipped over a few. But overall, I think it's helpful to read outside our camp.

We will select our Advent Reading this week and here are a few contenders: 

Come, Let us Adore Him, by Paul David Tripp

Celebrating Abundance, by Walter Bruggemann

Light Upon Light, by Sarah Arthur

She/He/Kids Read Truth also has an Advent Bible Reading Book here and if you order any of their Advent materials, I have a code for you to get 10% off! I got their She Reads Truth Advent book in the mail yesterday and, as usual, it's stunning in its production. I love how attentive they are to details, imaging the creator nature of God in all they do. 

Use the code LOREADVENT to get 10% off your order. 

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I hope whatever Advent traditions you have or begin this year will be rich, warm, simple, and full of the indestructible joy of life in Christ. Jesus is the reason for all this, not just this season, but every season, the good, bad, hard, easy, simple, excessive, empty, and full. And he is making all things new right now. 

When Everything Sad Still Feels True

Advent Nate and I drove to Behold the Lamb this past weekend, dressed in wool sweaters and leather boots and knit hats. We drank vanilla egg-nog lattes at the coffee shop and sometimes his eyes make me catch my breath. They have gotten sadder this year and have more crinkles around the corners. When I hear him on the phone laughing with one of our friends, my heart leaps and catches, there is no sound I love more than his laughter and the air feels so thick sometimes these days with anxiety and unknowns and tears. I miss his laughter and try to catch and hold it when I hear it.

There are some very good pieces floating around on loneliness and discouragement in the Christmas season, and I cannot add much to them, although I will say I expected holidays to take a different form once I got married, a more cheerful one. The truth, though, is our holidays have been sadder and emptier in many ways this year. I know they will begin to take form when we are more settled but for now they feel messy and haphazard and slightly unfinished, incomplete.

When during Behold the Lamb this year, Jill Philips began singing that it was not a silent night something in me broke this time around. I haven't stopped thinking of it for the past four days.

The King came as a baby, yes, born in a manger, yes, a pauper and homeless from his first breath. The King who owned the world did not have a place to lay his head except on the breast of the girl-child who birthed him in the squalor of animals and the poverty of their situation. It was not a silent night. It was not a peaceful night. It was not a night when "all that was sad came untrue." It was a night of pain in the midst of a people of pain and a generation of pain and a history of pain. Jesus had burst forth from a woman, but few believed right then, and not many more would until he burst forth from the tomb. He was there, but not all there. A bit like our todays. He has come and not yet come.

He has changed the water into the best wine, but He is still waiting to serve us the best feast.

He has put mud on our blind eyes but we still see through a glass dimly and men as trees walking.

He has calmed the storm over the sea but not the storm raging in all our hearts.

He has already come, but He has not yet come again.

We are still waiting.

The advice and reminders are everywhere, "Be happy! Your King has come!" but, friends, this Advent points to another Advent, and the waiting there is more painful and less jolly. We are still waiting. Our King has come but He has also not come and the angst in your hearts, the discontent, the fear of the unknown, the "How Long O Lord" that beats with your every breath—this is not a shameful thing. This is the unjust taxes and the baby boys dying over Israel and the mute Zechariah and the barren Elizabeth and the unplanned pregnancy of Mary and the agonizing decision for Joseph to believe the Angel Gabriel and the stink of animals and the no room at the inn and the loud sounds of labor and the first visitors of sheep and shepherds. All this clamoring angst and fear and frustration and waiting we feel is found in all of that tonight.

It's a week until Christmas and your struggles are probably greater than the gifts you haven't bought yet or the dilapidated remains of your Advent calendar or your fears about family drama. These are struggles we have masking the real weight we carry around, "How long O Lord? How long?" It is hard to sing Silent Night or Holy Night when all your nights are everything but. So know this, friend, He didn't come for a silent night and He didn't come in one. He came into the mess because of the mess. He came into the pain because of the pain. He came into the squalor because of the squalor. He came into today because he wanted to assure us that none of our todays were too much for Him.

What we face today is why He came and what He came into and why He is coming again, this time to really and forever "make everything sad come untrue (Tolkien)."

Celebrate Christmas with Me

I grew up with good, normal, American Christmas traditions, but in my late teens and throughout all of my twenties, my family went through a deep and visceral fracturing that did not leave holidays unscathed. For most of those years I distanced myself from any family holiday gatherings because it felt like taking sides in a war I couldn't win. It may not make sense to some, but it often felt like the choice between walking into a war zone or pretending the war didn't exist—and selfish as it may seem, the way to survive for me was to not choose sides with my presence. For most of the those years I was co-opted into other family's gatherings, an extra seat at their table, a pair of socks or a book or nothing under the tree for me. I was so glad to be there, though, that gifts mattered little to me. I wanted the feelings of the season, the reminder that even though my world felt broken, there was hope and wholeness somewhere. What I learned, spending Christmases with so many different families, is that hope and wholeness exists in Jesus alone. Every family was a mere shadow of the family yet to come. This freed me on the cusp of my thirties to begin crafting traditions of my own, whether or not I would ever have a family of my own. I didn't want to wait for marriage to begin traditions; I wanted to start now. I began to craft them on my own, and invited others into them. Those traditions helped build on the traditions that Nate and I are now making as a family.

I know it's only the beginning of November, but some of my Advent traditions begin in late November, so I wanted to share them with you now so you can get a head start.

rum logs

The first family who invited me into their family Christmas makes these every year. They are so popular in our hometown, that nearly everyone makes them. Here's a funny story: I was once at party where they were served and where one of our pastors and his young son were. After trying a few of them, another attendee leaned over to my friend, the pastor, and said, "You might not want to let Jack have any of those cookies," pointing at the Rum Logs, "I think someone spiked them." We all had a great laugh afterwards. These are alcohol free but you wouldn't know it from the taste. They are our favorites and they never last long.

Last Christmas a friend introduced us to Good Earth Sweet and Spicy Tea and I have not turned back. I drink both of the caffeinated one and the decaf one almost every day throughout the fall and winter. It is my favorite drink without question.

A few years ago a family from my church invited me to Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb in Dallas. I was spellbound the entire time. Not only was the performance funny, somber in all the right places, and felt like being in a living room with the musicians, it was poignant and felt so full of expectation. I've tried to go every year. Here is the list of cities it's coming to this year. Go. You won't regret it.

Partially because Christmas has felt more sad than hopeful for me every year for the past fifteen years, and partially just because I think by nature I tend toward being more melancholy during the winter months, I find I'm less of the Holly, Jolly Christmas sort, and more of the In the Bleak Midwinter sort. I have to not only listen to the deep and soulful music, but also the fun and jovial sort. But I also find my heart swells with expectation when I let it enter into the darkness we would feel without Christ. Young Oceans Christmas album has been a constant for me the past several years. Also, I am loving Christy Nockles new's album, A Thrill of Hope this year.

A few years ago Russ Ramsey released Behold the Lamb, a book of readings leading up to the birth of Christ, and I have always gravitated back to it in December. He's a very descriptive writer and you feel like you're right there with Mary when she gets the news, with Joseph in his dream, with the Shepherds by the star. But he's also deeply theological, and there's some convicting work in this book of what it means to follow the babe born in the manger.

One thing I've noticed about myself around Christmas is I tend to get fixated on a certain song or certain passage of scripture and it plays on repeat for me. This isn't bad of course, but a book I've come to appreciate each year is Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. It begins in November and some days the chapters are long, sometimes they're just poems, sometimes short observations, and they're all by different authors, so it doesn't feel dry or the same every day. I cannot endorse the theology of each one of the chapters, but if you're a discerning reader, I think there's some great food for thought in here.

Last year for my birthday some friends in Denver took me out for breakfast and gave me this candle as a present. December felt really dark to me last year for a lot of reasons, but this candle felt constant and its scent strangely just gave me hope. It reminded me that we were not alone and that a great Light had come. Plus, purchasing these candles supports cool things. And they last so long. I've had a few now and they've all lasted longer than other candles of similar size.

Nate and I have been in purge mode for the entirety of our relationship (moving from Texas to Colorado to Virginia and soon (hopefully!) to Tennessee in only 16 months makes you pare down your belongings pretty quickly). We also have been formulating some principles behind gift-giving and, if the Lord gives us children, how we want to instill generosity but also intentionality in our gift-giving. For us, right now, we've adopted a four gift rule with a catchy rhyme. It's working for us, and helps us be really mindful about what we're giving and why. Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. 

If you know me, you know I'm adverse to shopping almost always, but especially at Christmas time. I will do almost anything to stay away from malls, Target, even grocery stores during December. About a decade ago, though, I realized I was always forgetting gift-wrapping until the last minute—and I realized I was spending $30+ for just a few gifts to be wrapped and then unwrapped (likely the next morning because I procrastinate...). So I started looking at those brown paper bags from the grocery store a bit differently. Recycling and avoiding last minute wrapping rush and fitting wrapping into my philosophy of simplicity? I have been wrapping my gifts in brown paper tied with bakers string for over ten years now and I don't see that tradition ever changing. Some years I stick a sprig of evergreen or rosemary in the string, some years I've wrapped up a bit of bark or a candy cane. I mix it up a bit, but it's usually always the same. This helps me keep it simple. It also helps me remember that everything under the tree is just a thing. It's special for a season, but it is still ultimately just a thing, and someday will be recycled itself. I don't know about you, but I need all the reminders of that that I can. I saved some images on Pinterest over on my Traditions board so you can get some ideas. My best advice is just look at what's around you and make it work. Save money, time, and still make it special.

. . .

I hope your Advent season is rich and full. And I hope if you're still unmarried you don't wait for a spouse and children of your own to start traditions. Start now, even if they're just small things no one knows about but you. Redeem this time, even if redemption in this season feels weightier or harder than it might appear to be for others. And if you're a parent, remember this, the things I remember most about Christmas when I was small are the oranges and Granny Smith apples in our stockings, the oatmeal breakfast with craisins and cinnamon, and waking up to a cold house but a warm home. I cannot recall even one gift I received throughout my childhood, though I know I had them. I remember the presence of my parents and the warm simplicity of our home and holidays.

Our Charlie Brown Tree

Four of Six

IV

Oh, come, O Key of David, come, And open wide our heav'nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!

He and I talked this morning, used cliches like, "Well, if no doors open then it's just the same as a closed door." I reminded him cliches are cliches because they're true, and in our case, right now, every door feels slammed shut in the face of the persistent widow. We're pounding, God, we're pounding. You're not refusing us, though, like the unrighteous judge, you're just not even opening the door. Which is a refusal of sorts, even if a slight more polite.

A few days ago we sent an email to our closest friends. We begged for prayer and clarity. One, an elder from our home church and the man who married us, reminded us of Joseph's second visit from an angel, in Matthew 2. "Go to Israel!" he is told and so he goes. But before he gets there, "Go to Galilee instead!" and he obeys. It's just conjecture, but I wonder if Joseph stared at the starry skies and asked himself if he was crazy.

Or if God was.

I would have. I am.

There have been a thousand turns in life, a million corners, and a hundred cliffs I've jumped from. I have never known what God was up to or doing. Most of the time I only have enough sight to see the closed door in front of me—rarely stopping to think of the misery He is keeping me from on the other side.

We feel as though in a hexagon of closed doors right now. Every direction, every feeler, every raised hope—dashed by a solid wall in front of us. I have to remember He is making safe a better way, a way that leads on high, and closes us from the path of misery. I have to remember He is not withholding in order to teach us a lesson or punish us, but in order to love us in His best way.

The presence of the babe changed Joseph's life in every direction. Freedom was a thing of the past, he was submitted to God's ways from then on—as strange as they might have seemed.

God, in this Advent season, give us Joseph's heart.

What closed doors are in front of you today? What is God withholding from you because to have it would not be best for you? Do you believe God knows what is best and does it? Even if it doesn't feel best?

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