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.