When Your Christmas Isn’t Merry

So there has already been a time when I feel like my life was falling apart. And I wrote about it. And I asked for prayers about it. And I went to meetings about it. And I found some clarity and acceptance about it.

So why do I circle back around to feeling this way again? Why can’t this be resolved?

This coming February marks two years since I fell into a mild depression. I like to call it a funk because that makes it seem less serious.

This coming Sunday marks the (observed) anniversary of the arrival of our Savior bringing joy into this world.

So why does the funk outweigh the joy?

I think one of the biggest challenges we face in dealing with our lives is that we are not living a television show. We are so used to resolutions. We are so used to quick fixes.

But it isn’t just television culture that does this to us. We do it to ourselves. And to each other.

We spend so much time hiding what we are actually going through that people look at us and think we have it all together. And we look at them and think they have it all together. And the end result is instead of sharing our hurts and struggles with one another we have this need to show one another how put together we are.

And then we wake up in a funk the week before Christmas and can’t figure out why.

Because, after all, what is Christmas except a momentary celebration with lights, wrapping paper, carols, movies, and an extra church service or two? We get a couple extra days off of work or school and spend much of that time complaining that we are bored or surrounded by too many people.

But it is to that funk that Christmas specifically speaks. The message of Christmas is that life does indeed go on. And that means all the pain, all the struggle, all the frustration will still continue. That means there will still be sickness. There will still be death. There will still be broken relationships.

But into all of that, Jesus enters.

Are you hurting? He will hurt with you.

Are you doubting? He will listen to your questions with no judgment.

Are you lonely? He wants to comfort you.

Have his followers messed you up? He will not pull any punches with them.

Are you so lost that you think he doesn’t care about you? He still comes. Every day. Because he loves you.

So for the next few days, my funk will intermingle with my joy. I will have doubts, questions, and fears. And I will sing songs loudly with a smile on my face. I will wonder why things cannot get any better. And I will feel joy when family members get excited about their presents. I will feel sorrow when I think about the people who are not celebrating with us this year. And I will feel a sense of awe and wonder as I gather to worship the Savior.

My funk may or may not go away. And even if it does, it is likely to come back. But that is okay. Because I am not walking through it alone. So my Christmas may not be as merry as it could be.

But it will still be the source of my joy.

#icantbreathe, an Advent Reflection on Joy

Advent is a time of waiting. Advent is a time of darkness.

Yet there is still a message of hope, peace, joy, and love. But sometimes, the message of joy is hard to find.

Over the past few years, I have grown more aware that Advent is for people who don’t know how the story is going to end. What I am also coming to realize is that there are many people for whom that is still a reality: there are way too many people living in our country and throughout our world that have no idea how their story is going to end.

The unfortunate reality that goes along with that fact is this: there are many people for whom things are going so well they are deaf to the cries of those who are hurting.

#blacklivesmatter does not need to be changed. #icantbreathe does not need to be corrected. Nonviolent protests do not promote violent outbursts. People need to speak.

I am a privileged person. I have the opportunities that other people do not have. I have a voice that is often denied others. I cannot truly know the pain and fear of living as a minority in a culture with a history of oppression. I do know this, though: if I am feeling as if I cannot breathe, I can only imagine the difficulty for people who face the fear of death every day.

I Can’t Breathe because there seems to be no one to trust: those in power want more power; those in media want more ratings; those with national followings want more followers. There seems to be fewer and fewer people actually concerned with those who are suffering.

I Can’t Breathe because POC who are killed are villainized immediately with terms such as “thug” and rationalizations such as “he shouldn’t have been there in the first place” as if that justifies taking someone’s life.

I Can’t Breathe because people try to make one tragedy nullify the reality of another tragedy.

I Can’t Breathe because people are insisting support for one group of people necessitates rejecting other groups of people.

I Can’t Breathe because when I say the church needs to do a better job with addicts or those who suffer from mental health disorders I get only a little push back; yet when I say the church needs to do a better job with race relations I am called a racist and told to quiet down.

I Can’t Breathe because people are referred to as “it” and described as “demon.”

I Can’t Breathe because peaceful, non-violent protestors are immediately linked to violent crimes perpetrated by others.

I Can’t Breathe because our society is obsessed with the right to own a gun yet adults and children are shot on the spot for holding a toy.

I Can’t Breathe because our society is obsessed with the right to take life (war, death penalty, militarized policing, abortion) instead of being obsessed with what values life.

I Can’t Breathe because as I prepare to sing songs of worship and praise yet I am filled with despair thinking things will never change.

I Can’t Breathe…

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But…

“Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”

The story is not over.

The Spiritual Practice of Highlight/Lowlight; Please Join The Conversation

I want to start something new on my blog, but I need your help. I want to hear the best part and worst part of your life over the past month. In other words: your highlight and lowlight. Or, if you prefer: your happy/crappy!

The fancy term for this is examen, which means examination of conscious. It is a spiritual discipline that leads the individual to focus on the consolation (the good) and the desolation (the bad) of his or her life. We all have triumphs and we all have defeats. I believe we must be sharing them with one another.

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DESOLATION

Here is something I have noticed. When I share a post about depression, loneliness, or some other struggle many of us face, I receive a lot of feedback. Often, the comments come on facebook or on this blog, but just as often those comments come in private messages. I get that. I get the anonymity that people believe they must have in order to prevent being put down or cast aside. When people open up, they are afraid they will be looked down on. And I can’t say that I blame them.

But I continue learning that none of us are facing struggles alone. There are so many people all around us that need to hear our stories—YOUR story. People need to know that others are struggling with similar issues so that we can begin to support one another instead of continuing to isolate.

CONSOLATION

Here is something else I have noticed. When people who have been in the midst of a struggle experience some type of joy, they do not know what to do with it. Is it appropriate to be happy? Dare I smile for a moment in the midst of all this pain? Sometimes we are afraid of being happy.

But all of go through ups and downs. All of us go through seasons of life. All of us face the variety of emotions common to humanity. We need to be able to speak the good just as often as we speak the bad. Because some days I need you to remind me that it will get better. It may never be the same as it was, but there is a day coming when there will be some relief.

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We should never stay in either consolation or desolation. We move back and forth between both. So here is my new, interactive task for readers of my blog: share with us your consolation (highlight/happy) and desolation (lowlight/crappy) from the past month. You can think about in several ways: simply use the terms I have already given, or think about when you were the closest to God and when you were the farthest away from God. For those of you who are not particularly religious or spiritual, when you were the closest to the person you need to be and when were you the farthest away from the person you need to be.

Please share with us. Share in the comments on this post. Or share in the comments on facebook or on twitter (my handle there is paulmathis2). I will do this once a month, so please take part continually. I believe this is an important spiritual practice. We end every day at FaithWorks of Abilene with this practice. I am in a weekly prayer group that practices this, as well.

We need community. We need to support one another. We need to know that we are not alone in our struggle. We need to remember that there is joy in the midst of our pain. So please join with us in sharing our highlight/lowlight.

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For me this month, my highlight is my relationship with my three children. I am so impressed at their thoughtfulness and spiritual discernment at such young ages (15, 13, 11). I have often felt far away from my oldest, but I believe we are closer now than we have ever been. My middle child is full of God’s Spirit and it shines through her constantly. My youngest continues to fill my days with joy.

My lowlight is my health. In the long run, it is not a big deal, but I have to go back on cholesterol medicine. A little over 2 years ago, my bad cholesterol was really high and I was given a prescription but never took it. My classmates at that time encouraged me, I started taking the pills, and my numbers came down. I began exercising (a little) and eating better. But I have been off the medication for a year and my numbers are back up. I am not doing as well as I thought. I come from a family of heart disease. My brother died 4 years ago at age 47 of a heart attack. I need to get this under control. In addition to the medicine, I need to better with diet and exercise.

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So what about you? What is your highlight/lowlight? What are your consolations and desolations? Please do not be afraid to share. May you find encouragement as you read what others have to say.

Today Was A Bad Day

Some days, I just want it to stop.

I don’t want to have to keep putting in so much effort.

Life is hard and I don’t always think I am up to the challenge.

Some mornings, it is such an effort to get out of bed because I know I am just going to have the face the same challenges I faced yesterday. If I have already worked so hard, why do I have to keep working? If I have put so much effort into this already, why can’t I see a payoff?

And I don’t always feel like I can tell anyone.

Because, after all, I’m the guy with sobriety time. I’m the guy who leads recovery groups. I’m the guy who’s almost 40, married 17 years with 3 kids. I’m the guy who helps teach people how to discover their talents and abilities and find work. I’m the guy who leads small groups for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults.

So who can I tell?

I can’t show any weakness. I need to be strong. And also, won’t all these things just go away if only I have enough faith? Pray hard enough? Do more churchy stuff?

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One of the worst things about feeling that way is that we convince ourselves we cannot talk about it.

Feeling tired, feeling overwhelmed, feeling depressed is not strange. It is not sinful. It is not wrong. It happens.

And pretending it doesn’t makes it worse.

We need to create more space to talk about our difficult days. The more we talk, the less strange it seems. More than that, when we talk about it more, we realize that we are not alone in our struggle. So many of us have thought we are the only ones who feel depressed, lonely, anxious, or just sad.

But we are not. So many others have experienced the same things. When we isolate, our experience only gets worse. And isolating does something else: it allows us to convince ourselves that we are the only ones who struggle. Because when everyone is isolating, no one is sharing.

One of the most powerful, startling, and profound realizations anyone can have is, “I am not alone.” I find out I am not alone when someone has the courage to speak up and say they go through the same things I go through. Other people find out they are not alone when I muster up enough courage to speak up on my own behalf.

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Treating it like sin or weakness makes it worse.

Depression is not a matter of lack of faith. Anxiety is not a sin.

But what about that verse that says, “Cast all your anxieties on Him” or, “Do not be anxious about anything”?

I know that. I get that. I love those verses. I strive to follow them daily.

But some days, the emotion is almost crushing. Some days, I feel like it is a struggle to breathe.

Does that mean I am sinful those days? I certainly hope not.

I believe it means that when I feel like I am about to lose control I know where to turn. When fear hits, I have a refuge. When anxiety descends upon me and I am overwhelmed, I can begin to turn to that light. When the waves of life are crashing around me, I don’t have to be okay before I say, “God, help!”

I do cast my cares on Him. When I am anxious I do pray. But I still have those moments of struggle. Thank God I am not alone in that.

Instead of making people feel weak or un-Christian for those experiences, lament with them. Be quiet instead of offering platitudes. Cry and scream with them. Maybe they will do the same with you.

Do you need examples of people, good people, who experienced depression and anxiety? Look at John the Baptist and Jesus. The prophet who asked if Jesus really was who John had proclaimed him to be. The Messiah, Son of God, Savior, who was so stressed out his sweat fell like blood.

We have our moments of grief, anguish, fear, doubt, and pain. But we know where we can turn.

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This does not even address those who suffer with severe clinical depression or anxiety. If you are one of those people, please seek the help you need. But also, please talk to me about it. I pray you are in a faith community that is welcoming and inviting to you. I pray you have a community that treats you like a brother or a sister; not an outcast.

To the faith community, please stop making people who suffer with mental health issues feel like they are “less than.” People do not need to be made to feel guilty; they need to be loved, supported, and nurtured. People don’t need nags, they need champions—people who will fight for them even when they don’t have the strength to fight for themselves.

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Let us be more open; more vulnerable. In other words—let’s be honest. Not every day is a good day. And some bad days are worse than others.

I need to know you have bad days. And I need you to know that I have them, too. It’s easy to find people to get together and have a good time. It’s easy to find people who are willing to suppress their real emotions in order to not the rock the boat at social gatherings.

It is much harder to find people who are willing to be honest. People who are willing to show the courage it takes to say, “I need help.”

But when we say that, we realize we are not alone.

And they may just be the greatest realization we can make.

Christmas Songs 2013, Part III: Joy!

This is the last of three lessons taught by my daughter, Rheannon, and me at Freedom Fellowship in Abilene, TX.  What a blessing and honor for me to do this with her!  You can read the text of the first two lessons here and here. 

Rheannon:

In this third week of advent we celebrate joy. When I think of joy I think of two of my good friends-Landry Bonneau and Jacob Hutton. Landry is just so bubbly and happy all the time. Every time I see her, she has a big smile on her face. Jacob is just… fun. He is always able to joke around and make people laugh. They are some of the best people I know. I hate to see them sad, because it makes me sad. But even they get disappointed or upset. And when they do, when they come out of that feeling, they are even better. Joy is them. They are joy.

Another thing I think about when the word joy comes is a line from The Grinch “I hate this music, it’s joyful and triumphant.” And yet, moments before, he was singing. But after that, he goes to extreme measures just to not hear the music. He puts screws in blenders, gets on a jackhammer, and turns on a giant monkey that plays the cymbals. See? I believe he over-exaggerates his point. I mean, a monkey? Really? Because, deep down, in his small heart, he wants to feel joy. At the end of the movie/book, his heart grows three sizes bigger. He learns to love the Who’s. He seems like a grumpy old thing, but he still feels. The joy is always there.

Paul:

So where are tonight?  Not physically, we all know where we are sitting.  But where are you; better yet—how are you?  How are you tonight?  How are compared to how you were on January 1, 2013?  Do you feel as if you are in the exact same place you were at the beginning of the year?

I don’t ask that question to make you feel guilty.  I ask you to create the space necessary to answer it honestly.  Some of us have had a great year.  Things have just fallen into place in ways we never could have imagined.  And for others, this year has been difficult.  Some of us can join with the writer of this song and say we are in the exact same place as New Year’s Eve.

Remember the time in the Gospels with John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to Jesus?  He wants to know if Jesus is really the One.  You know, the One he was preparing the way for.  “Hey, Jesus?  You know how I did all that preaching and preparing the way?  Remember how I said I wasn’t worthy to tie your sandals?  You know how I became less so that you could become more?  Well now I’m sitting in prison, I’m probably going to die, and I just don’t know anymore.  I believed everything I said.  I believe I have fulfilled God’s role for my life.  But now, I’m wondering.”

Can you relate to John?  Have you ever had those questions?  I have.  And even though I know God has worked in my life before, I still feel like exactly where I used to be.

So what do we do with that?

Rheannon:

As my father said, thinking back on my year, I feel like it could have gone either way. I could have made some better. But thinking of where I am now, I feel joy. I’m meeting my goal for getting 6 million words well. I’m making all a’s, and I’m able to teach here, the place I love with the person I love. Just thinking about this year, I wish it was longer. Some of my choices haven’t been the hottest. So thinking of where I am, I am happy. I came a long way since January. Many of you may feel the same way. Others may wish you had done something different. But however you feel, you still have next year. If the year has been great- keep it that way, and if it was bad- use it to your advantage. And when you do, you will feel joy. You will be able to look back and tell whatever it is that hurt you, and tell it that it lost. That feeling feels amazing. Joy is findable, but you must be willing to look.

When Gabriel comes to Mary, and tells her she will give birth to the Messiah, at first she is hesitant to believe him. But as soon as she does, she is overjoyed. She sings a beautiful song. She cries out to God, thanking him. She is just so excited. When she races to tell Elizabeth, her baby jumps for joy. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, happy for Mary. And that joy, knowing that you were chosen to bring the One True God into the world. I would have been so excited.  Though Mary was looked down on from just about everyone, she didn’t care. And when she is forced to give birth in an old stable, (or cave, or any other not-great-places) she handles it. She gives birth, and rejoices.

But after that, she must run. She has to run from a powerful king, who wants her son dead.

Paul:

Advent.  The hope of a Savior.  The hope of a Messiah.  The hopeful expectation that God is moving in this world in a way that only God can.

“And so this Christmas I’ll compare the things I felt in prior years; To what this midnight made so clear; That you have come to meet me here.”

That’s the message of Christmas.  That’s the hope of Advent.  That God has come to meet us exactly where we are.  And He does it by living the human experience completely.

Do you remember the answer Jesus sent back to John the Baptist?  He doesn’t say, “Of course I’m the Messiah!  How dare you question me?”  He says, “Tell John what you see:  the deaf hear, the lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.”

Immanuel has come.  God is with us.  When we ask ourselves where we are compared to last year, the answer may not be as happy as we want it to be.

But Christ has still come!

Rheannon:

Hope, peace, joy. These are things Christmas stand for. It’s not all about presents and food. It’s about a savior who came to save. A God who sent his only son to save us. But there is still sin. There are still school shootings, people who won’t get presents, who won’t have a good meal.

I hope for a day when young men and women don’t have to fight, where we have no enemies. I hope for a day when parents don’t have to worry about their children getting shot. I hope for a day when I can go to school, and not have to worry about what people might say about my clothes, or hair, or whatever else is considered important. I hope for a day when people don’t have to worry about their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are dying.

I want to be at peace with my friends, and not have to watch what I say. I want a day when we can have peace with all our enemies. I want a day when peace is an understatement to the way people are.

I wish for a day when people are so joyful they can’t describe it. I wish for a day when there is no disappointment, anger, or upsetedness. I wish for a day when everyone has a smile from ear to ear, all the time.

But most of all I hope for a day when a young woman can give birth to the Savior in peace, and be joyful. That is the day I want to live to see.

Paul:

And that is the day the gives us joy.  Throughout Advent we hope, we wait.  But when Jesus comes, we celebrate!

Jesus may not have had any idea what was going to happen the first time He took a breath.  But one day, I was going to pray to Jesus to save my life.  And He would do it.  And for that I celebrate.

I celebrate the day the He was born.  I celebrate the heart of Mary and Joseph.  I celebrate the gift of God.  I am filled with joy and get to the point when praise just has to break out in any way possible.

We are going to close this lesson, this series, and this calendar year with a time of praise.  We are going to express our joy to God for the gift of His Son, Jesus.