When Christmas isn’t Joyous

homelessAt Christmas time, we’re assailed by songs that tell us that it’s the ‘most wonderful time of the year.’ We are encouraged to revel in the excitement of food and family and presents and general boisterous chaos.

For many however, Christmas is one of the most difficult times of the year; a time when loneliness and poverty are exacerbated; when spending a quiet night eating a tin of baked beans is not only lonely, but excruciatingly painful.

My heart goes out to those who are poor and alone on Christmas, and as the church, we should be reaching out to them, but I can’t help wondering whether Christmas’ ability to be devastating is evidence that we’ve really missed the point.

Who was more poor or alone on Christmas night than Mary and Joseph themselves? And yet the entire reason that we sing of it as the most joyous and holy of all nights, is that Jesus, the savior of the world, was born.

Secular society has made Christmas all about friends, family, presents and food, isolating people who don’t have these things. But that is never what it was supposed to be about. It was about God coming to earth in human form, in the loneliest and poorest of ways, to dwell with us and save us from ourselves. If this is really our focus at Christmas, it can be a time of great joy for everyone, even, or dare I say especially, for those who don’t fit society’s mold.

Does God Only Give Good Gifts?

During a time that I was very sick, a friend told me that ‘God doesn’t want you to be sick,’ and that ‘God only gives good gifts.’

I wrestled with this for a long time. I struggled with the passage in Matthew 7 which says “Which of you fathers, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?… How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” I read Psalm 84:11 which says “…no good thing doe he withhold from those whose walk is blameless” and I wondered why God was holding out on me.1050853_30933761

If God is good, and gives good gifts, why do I hate so many of the things He gives me? Either God does not always give good gifts, or my perception of what is ‘good’ is warped.

I’ve come to believe the latter. So often my perspective is confined to the here and now. I look at my circumstances and what God has given me, and feel that they really aren’t all that good. However, when my perspective doesn’t line up with that of scripture, it’s me who needs to change.

Sometimes God gives us things that are hard to bear, but if we trust His word, we can see that ultimately He works ALL things together for our good. He is good and he gives good things, sometimes it’s us who need to recognize that what is ‘good’ does not always feel gratifying now.

Your Body Can Handle More Than You Think

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I recently watched a TED talk about stress by Kelly McGonigal. (you can watch it here.)

Being a self confessed ‘stresser,’ I was fascinated by McGonigal’s premise that stress in itself is nowhere near as damaging to our health and wellbeing as we have been inclined to think. Rather, she claims, it is the mere belief that stress is harmful to our health, which causes such drastic ill effects.

As I watched the talk, I found myself reflecting on something that has always astounded me. The human body has a phenomenal capacity to endure suffering. We can handle far more than we can even imagine, it’s just that, most of the time, our body doesn’t let on to this fact. Our panic and fear-of-impending-doom responses often kick in early, as they are well designed to do, but sometimes that leaves us with the feeling that something that will cause us no harm at all, is an imminent threat.

I could immediately see connections to my faith. God has not promised us an easy ride, in fact, Christians have almost been guaranteed hardship, and yet we have also been promised that we will be able to endure. How often do we fall into harm’s way, not because we have been given more than we can bear, but because we have given into the temptation of worry and anxiety?

Perhaps taking our anxieties first to the Throne of Grace will give us greater protection from harm, than avoiding challenging situations.

When God Takes Away

138261Some time ago, I posted one of my favourite segments from the book Stepping Heavenward, by Elizabeth Prentiss. This has been a hugely influential book in my life, and I’d like to share another section that I copied out into my diary several years ago.

‘God does nothing arbitrary. If He takes away your health, for example, it is because He has some reason for doing so; and this is true of everything you value; and if you have real faith in Him, you will not insist on knowing the reason. If you find, in the course of daily events, that your self-consecration was not perfect – that is, that your will revolts at His will – do not be discouraged, but fly to your saviour and stay in His presence until you obtain the spirit in which He cried “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from me: Nevertheless not my will but Yours be done.”(Luke 22:42)

Every time you do this it will be easier to do it; every such consent to suffer will bring you nearer and nearer to Him; and in this nearness to Him you will find such peace, such blessed, sweet peace as will make your life infinitely happy, no matter what may be its mere outside condition.’

I hope this inspires convicts and fills you with hope in the way in which it did for me. I can attest to the truth of these words. Our God is faithful. He does nothing arbitrary.

How can I trust God when He gives no guarantee things will get easier?

cliff-drop-warning-sign--information_19-133742Anyone who has come face to face with the call to trust God in the midst of suffering will understand these feelings of trepidation.

The Christian, never having been promised an easy life, is still supposed to trust God, knowing that He may lead us into hardships. Sometimes it feels like you’re standing at the top of a cliff, fearfully putting your trust in someone who may well push you off, against your wishes and with no warning.

I remember wrestling with this during one of my most unwell times. ‘How can I trust someone who may allow me to go even deeper into this pit of suffering?’ It’s a very real question. If I can’t trust a God who loves me to protect me from what I fear most, then what can I trust Him for?

Sometimes I think we forget what it means to be a Christian. It means that we’ve been crucified with Christ. Crucified! We have given up all of our earthly rights in the hope that we can be restored to relationship with God; that we have a home in heaven; and that all things will, ultimately, work together for our good.

We do not chiefly trust in God to make our lives easier. We surrender our lives, to share in His sufferings, because we believe it is the greatest possible trade we could make. Our trust is in God, not for earthly pleasures, but for the glory that will one day be revealed.

Is there a Greater Reality?

dreaming-in-the-grey-reality-1136764-mThis is a question that has changed my life. I think most of us go through life defining our reality by what we can see and touch. We assign levels of reality. Tangible objects are the most real, followed by feelings and then ideas. That which is spiritual is often designated a position in the outskirts of what we deem true reality.

The Christian is called, however, through the renewing of their mind, to alter their perception of reality. We must perceive that which is spiritual, as described by the Scriptures, to be equally as much of a reality, if not even more so, as that which we see and feel.  We are called to live not by sight, but by faith.

This changed my life when I realized that the truth of the Scriptures must override my earthly perception of reality.

When my feelings tell me I’m afraid, they are intense. They claw for a prime position in defining my reality, but as a Christian, fear does not need to be my reality. When I read the scriptures I learn that the Spirit within me does not fear, and therefore, fear does not have to have a hold on me. Acknowledging this as a greater truth and ‘even more real’ than my feelings brings liberation.

Our reality must no longer be defined by what we see, but what we know by faith. It’s radical. To the unbeliever it’s absurd, but as they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

You might be sick, but you’re not useless.

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A friend of mine recently sent me a link to the Wikipedia page of Laura Hillenbrand. The name, at first, meant nothing to me, and I wasn’t sure why she’d sent it, but as I read, something jumped out at me, and I knew it was what she wanted me to see:

“Hillenbrand’s first book was the acclaimed Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), a nonfiction account of the career of the great racehorse Seabiscuit, for which she won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001…Hillenbrand suffers from severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and remains largely confined to her home.”

I am not confined to my home, but I do know the debilitating weight of this illness; the way in which it seems to strangle your talents and potential. And yet, I find in Hillenbrand’s life the inspiration that sick people don’t have to feel useless.

To recount all the blessings I have encountered not despite, but because of my illness would take thousands of words, but I too have discovered that even sick people have a purpose and calling from God. We may not all be great writers, but God does not leave his Children without gifts to use for the building up of the church.

So if you’re sick, or tired or you find yourself in circumstances that you never would have chosen, do not, on top of all that, despair that you have no earthly use or purpose.

The Precious Gift of Having Suffered

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The other week, I had a chance to talk to a group of students about of my journey with Chronic Fatigue. I talked about the darkness, the grief and the sometimes overwhelming feelings of despair, but I also talked about the hope and joy I have found through my relationship with Jesus.

At the end of the lesson, I was surprised when one of the students stayed behind.

“I just wanted to talk to you” he said, “because you’ve been through the same thing that I’m going through now.”

He then went on to tell me about what was going on in his life. Indirectly, he was dealing with issues of death and divorce, sexual abuse, neglect, overwork and worry. His circumstances were overwhelming, and poles apart from anything I had ever experienced.

I couldn’t understand why he was talking to me as though I’d been there too. Suddenly I realized: for perhaps the first time, an adult had opened up about being in dark places and finding a way through. My comparatively small affliction had given me credibility in a world of suffering and pain.

My illness has tattooed into me the exclusive pass code to a world where hurting people need hope. People come to me, and listen to me, because they see in me someone who has been there and survived. It is a privileged position to be in.

May God grant me the grace to see the blessings of suffering shine more brightly than the pain.