Advent: hope

Here we are, it’s Christmastime. And what do you know, I am actually excited about it, not a normal thing for me. But I am in a season of newness and with that comes an eagerness to engage with this season in a new way.

Coming out of a particularly rough time has me on high alert. I want so much for this current season to be a good one. One far from the pain and confusion of the last one. I keep thinking about how I can stay on track, keep aware of and on top of my spiritual life.

I saw the new Hunger Games movie last week and there was a line that stuck me: “It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.” I cringed a bit when I heard that, because I know that deeply. And it scares me a little too.  Some days it seems like such a fine line between “ok” and “not ok” and once you cross that line into “not ok” it takes so long to get back.

So my plan is this: to stay present. A lot of my anxiety lies in, in part, thinking about the uncertainty of the future, the dreading of it, even. There were hard things ahead I simply did not want to go through, which made it that much harder to find joy in the present. When I look back at difficult seasons I realize there was so much good too. Incredibly amazing things happened, but it was darkened by a cloud I could not get rid of; everything was tainted.

As I continue to reflect, what I realize is that I was failing to give God space to work in me. In my bitterness, I would shut God out, driving a big wedge between me and and his work. I was essentially giving God the whole “my way or the highway” ultimatum. And, well, that doesn’t work out too well.

Tearing down the walls that you build up is a tricky business. It involves a lot of thought retraining, taking that whole “every thought captive” thing way more seriously. I think what happens when I face great difficulty is that I replace hope with numbing. Checking out is way easier that dealing with life. But as I just learned from this incredibly well spoken “Ted Talk” from Brene Brown, when you numb, you don’t just numb the bad, you numb the good too. It’s much harder to see God’s goodness when you are numb.

*big breath here*

I feel like I am tackling something huge here. Bad habits are hard to break. But one step at a time. Its easy to justify my coping mechanisms (i.e. numbing) because, on a grand scale, I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict or anything like that. But, really, numbing is numbing. When we cope with life by checking out and not turning to God, that is always bad.

Every once in a while one of the resident drunk guys from the red-light district I work in will stumble into the coffee shop early morning. I’m starting to open up the shop and start the day and he hasn’t even gone home to “sleep it off” yet. I don’t know much about this guy. As far as I can tell, he is from Europe somewhere, but every encounter I have had with him, he has been so drunk that I cannot not make out his slurred words. He stumbles in, saying things I don’t understand. I sit him down, get him some water, and listen to him “talk” trying my hardest to understand. Mostly I’ll just smile and tell him he should go home to sleep.

I have never been able to understand anything he said until the last time he came into the shop. It was toward the end of our “conversation.” He suddenly stopped, looked straight at me, and with tears streaming down his face, he said clearly, “I used to be happy…” I felt hit in the stomach. His sadness was overwhelming. And all I could think of was what a horrible affliction hopelessness was. And it made me so angry that hopelessness could get such grip on you. It’s one of our enemy’s greatest weapons; and it’s why numbing is such a problem.

Facing life in deep hopelessness almost leaves you no choice but to numb.

So maybe I don’t numb my waining hope by becoming a drug or alcohol addict, but I sometimes feel like I don’t blame those who do. How do you cope with life when your hope is failing? We all have our own coping mechanisms. Some are just more widely accepted than others.  But separation from God is separation from God, no matter what form it takes.

So how do we hold on to that hope when everything seems so wrong? That is the question I kept coming against. And I guess there is no easy answer to that. Sometimes you go through these great seasons where the hope of Christ shines though everything; and sometimes you go though seasons where you almost believe it was all made up. Where it almost seems easier to give up hope rather than to hold on to it.

When I look back on those seasons when I was nearly ready to give up hope, or at least hope in the right things, it was torturous. Not just because of circumstances, but because there was no anchor, nothing to keep me centered. How people get though a long life with out the hope of Christ as an anchor continues to elude me. What I have come to realize after every deep soul search in the darkest of times is that life with hope, even if it doesn’t always make sense, is infinitely better than life without hope. So, in this first week of advent, I thank God for that hope. That life saving hope. When Christ broke into this world, he changed everything. And he left us with a promise that he would be with us, no matter what, and that he would come again to make everything right again. It just makes my soul smile.

Back to The Hunger Games if I may (can you tell I just watched the latest movie?). I’ll try not to spoil anything in case you haven’t read the books (which I highly recommend you do). It is an incredibly well written story that tackles a lot of human issues, including the nature of hope. In case you have been living under a rock and have no idea what The Hunger Games is about. It’s basically a story of a future distopian reality where there is an oppressive capital and 12 districts under the rule of that capital. As punishment for a past uprising, the capital created “The Hunger Games” where each district has to send two of their children into a fight to the death, with only one survivor at the end. Morbid, I know. But the leader of this distopian land, President Snow, knows what he is doing and what hope is. Here is a discussion he has with the guy he put in charge of managing the hunger games:

President Snow: Seneca… why do you think we have a winner?

Seneca Crane: [frowns] What do you mean?

President Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up twenty-four of them at random and execute them all at once? Be a lot faster. [Seneca just stares, confused]

President Snow: Hope.

Seneca Crane: Hope?

President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.

Seneca Crane: So…?

President Snow: So, CONTAIN it.

President Snow is using what he knows to be true about hope: it is stronger than fear. He manipulates it to his benefit, much like the enemy will. But great hope, that is a dangerous thing. It drives fear right out of our lives. That gift of hope Christ gave us was one of the most powerful weapons he could have given. One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite Christmas songs is this, from Oh Holy Night:

“A thrill of hope

the weary world rejoices

for yonder breaks

a new and glorious morn.”

I can’t remember the last time I was excited about Christmas. For most of my adult life, Christmas has mostly just been something I had to get through. It caused way more stress than joy. And lets be honest, America is a little crazy when it comes to Christmas. But Christmas is a much more mellow experience here in Thailand. Something you can nearly forget about if your not intentional. And I think thats why I am starting to like Christmas again, because it is something I have to be intentional about  instead of having the commercialism of it stuffed in down my throat. For the first time in a long time I got that “thrill of hope” for Christmas, excited to enter a season of thinking of Jesus’ coming. I am looking forward to these 4 weeks of Advent, to thinking about hope, joy, peace, and love. And it is my hope to post weekly in refection of each of those things. It will be a blogging record for me 🙂

Ok. One last Hunger Games reference…

I may have gotten a little too deeply connected to the story as I was reading the books. This happens to me sometimes. Throughout the story, I “made it through” all the tragedy driven by the hope that, in the end, everything was going to be ok. The ending, however, was a little more complex than that. Things resolved, but there was unrepairable damage and loss. I remember not being too happy with that; it troubled my soul somehow. Some might say it’s better literature to not wrap everything up neatly, but if I’m honest, that is what I wanted. I think that is what we all want. I tried to read the books again and I couldn’t make it very far without crying, because I knew how it ended and I didn’t like it. But I suppose we could say the opposite is true for the story we are all living now. As children of God, we know how this ends, and it is an incredibly good ending. That is our hope that keeps us going.

On that day, A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him. … Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.

From Isaiah 11

Happy Advent, everyone! HopeCollage

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