Advent Day 24
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
In “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus says, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful thing like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” And that’s me; I’m Charlie Brown. I take what is beautiful and good about Christmas and turn it into worry and stress and anxiety. And like Charlie Brown, I get hopeless and depressed because, for another year, Christmas fails to live up to my expectations.
And what are my expectations? The perfect tree, homemade cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, piles of gifts under the tree. I want our family to have traditions. I want to recreate the magic I felt as a child. I want to incorporate meaningful spiritual exercises into our advent experience. And I want to feel a deep, spiritual experience of Christ and his birth. On the heels of the expectations are the demands and the “shoulds” of how to make it all happen, and they all fall squarely on my shoulders. The hunt for the perfect tree shouldn’t begin at Home Depot, it should begin at a tree farm and end with boys with a saw cutting down a tree. Homemade cinnamon rolls should begin with butter, not with a butter knife popping open a can of Pillsbury. But the problem is, I can’t make it all happen. I fail. And so our tree comes from Home Depot and our cinnamon rolls come from a can. All the failures, all the disappointments, all of it leads to hopelessness. And ultimately, after I finish the self-inflicted shame, I pin it all on God. Not only have I failed myself, but God has failed me. And I get angry at God for not fulfilling my expectations for the perfect Christmas. I let go of hope.
How do I reclaim the hope that Christmas brings? There are two kinds of hope, worldly hope and godly hope. Worldly hope is a desire for something that we want to come to fruition. This hope places its bets on things that have a concrete completion in the here and now. Things that we can point to and say, see, my hopes came to be. But worldly hope can be a disappointing hope. This disappointment is a universal human experience and there are two possible outcomes. First, we don’t get what we want and become cynical. Or second, we don’t get what we want and we let the pain and disappointment of our frustrated hopes lead us to God; we let it teach us about ourselves. This leads us to the hope we are made for. This response is the segue-way to godly hope. Godly hope is the hope behind the worldly hope. Ultimately, God is our true desire. And hope in God is a sure thing. It’s a future hope, one that will be fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ’s return becomes a reality. Christ in me the hope of glory.
In the end, Charlie Brown finds the meaning of Christmas. He sees it in his pathetic little tree, propped up by Linus’ blanket and decorated by the gang. And, like Charlie Brown, I find the hope in Christmas when I hear the story of a baby born in a manger. And all the expectations fade away.
©stephanie g. pepper
Hold on to Hope December 22, 2015
Advent Day 24
forgetting what lies behind August 7, 2015
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead… (Philippians 3:13)
I pack a lot of that around. It is a near constant companion it seems. It looms large in my mind. And while I have regrets in a lot of life’s places, it is most noticeable when it comes to my boys. I regret that I have not been the mother I always hoped I’d be. I have let time slip through my fingers and now the littlest boy starts school in a week. And my mind is full of regret for the time that I’ve let pass by. Have I cheated them out of what I owe them? What will my children remember me for? Will they remember the mother who took them to the zoo and the playground? Or will they remember the mother who couldn’t get off the couch? Will they remember the mother who pushed Matchbox cars around on the floor or the one who was too busy doing nothing? And honestly, I did do the good things once in a while. It wasn’t always a peanut butter and jelly and Caillou. Some days I did the good things. But more days, I didn’t.
And so I stand here at the end of a chapter and I am filled with regret.
I am hard on myself, I know. I beat myself silly over the time I’ve wished away. The days that seemed so long that I couldn’t wait for them to be over, to climb in bed and be done for the day. I beat myself over the head with regret, never giving myself the grace to fall down, yet falling down so often. And shame creeps in sidling up with regret to pull me down even further.
But bad days aren’t every days. There are good ones mixed in there too; those days we played Battleship or passed the football in the yard. When I used to push them on the swings and catch them at the bottom of the slide. The ones filled with laughter and smiles. Days when I loved them well. These are the days I remember and hold on to, though I wonder if they will.
To be fair, I have struggled with mental illness their whole lives. That’s a reason but not an excuse, though I have used it as an excuse. An illness that left me debilitated, not able to leave the bed. One that left me a raging machine, unable to find anything but anger in the messes and tears. I have found no grace for myself in those moments. Only shame and regret. And in that shame and regret, I lug around a lot of baggage. The “should haves,” the “oughts,” and the “might have beens.” They are like weights on my shoulders, pushing me into the ground.
What do I do with the “should haves?” Can I pay them back for all the “might have beens?” God knows I have tried. Tried with trips to McDonald’s and Krispie Kreme. Tried with ice cream cones and slushies. Tried with things, not time. And time is what they crave. What they long for. And I had it to give, still have it to give. Will I?
Regret dies slowly and shame even slower. And I want to know, is there time left to redeem my motherhood? Is there grace enough for the loss? I can never live up to the standards I place on myself. I’m not sure anyone can. There’s always some regret, some way it could have been better, even for the best of us. But we aren’t our worst days any more than we are our best days.
And there is hope born in the ashes of my failure. Which means that I don’t have to live in the regret. I can forget what lies behind. Tomorrow can be a better day. I can live richly with my children in the todays and tomorrows and redeem the time I’ve lost. That time is gone for sure, but the future still lies ahead and that is the part to strain for, to hope for. I’m more than a little sad for the loss, for the time that is gone like water down a drain. But there is hope. A hope that comes from God. It comes from him saying that I am enough even with my failures. I don’t have to live in the shame of what I haven’t done. Shame and regret are tied together like a thick cord. And how do I untie that knot? By resting in the knowledge that I am loved perfectly my Father. And he loves my boys perfectly, too. By knowing that where I have failed them, he has never and will never fail them. I don’t have to live in regret and shame because I am forgiven. Because I am loved.
So there is still hope for me. Hope for football games and soccer matches. Tee-ball games and violin recitals. For driving lessons and first dates. For regular days too; lazy days and crazy days. I can be present now and that is enough. The past is gone. The now is all I’ve got.
And what if this thing that feels like an ending to me is actually a beginning?
©stephanie g. pepper
lean hard July 9, 2013
“When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.”
Once when I was young and we were visiting, I picked up my grandmother’s Bible. It was a thick volume, bound in bonded black leather; King James’ English in large print for tired eyes. Thumbing through the thin, gold-leaf pages I came to a bookmark. There wasn’t anything remarkable about it other than what she’d written on it. There, in careful, labored script, were the words “lean hard on Jesus.” That thought puzzled me but not for long. I had no real interest in it so it quickly disappeared. At least, I thought it had. Turns out it had buried itself down deep into my soul and taken root. And a year or so ago, in the midst of an incredible season of darkness, a simple phrase scrawled by a quiet woman on a scrap of paper, pushed through the aching soil of a deep valley. The darkness of that gorge—of depression—is a darkness that can’t be seen but only felt. It saturates every aspect of living—even, and maybe especially, God. Trying to hold on to faith and hope and Jesus in the midst of that kind of oppressive suffering is, well, hell. But that phrase, I can’t say that I repeated it like a mantra, but it would saunter into my thoughts at times when I could barely lift my head.
And so this woman that I barely knew spoke Truth into my life years before I needed it.
I’ve always regretted that I didn’t know her better; that I never found out what made her tick, what she loved, where she hurt. And I wanted to know her secret, the reason she always whispered His name in everything she did, where her peace came from, why she was so content. But she had already given me her secret—lean hard on Jesus—and we never knew it.
We are kindred spirits, she and I; tied together by an invisible thread, in refuge under the shadow of the same wings. Leaning hard on our Jesus.
©stephanie pepper, 2013
turning sad June 21, 2013
“Some people turn sad awfully young,” he said. “No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.” –Mr. Jonas to Douglas in Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
I’m struck with a deep, profound sadness sometimes. There’s no discernible trigger, no circumstance. Nothing “happens.” It just is. A dark emptiness falls and casts its heavy shadow over every part my living. This sadness, it happens a lot to people like me. People existing with this insidious illness called depression. It saps the life and energy clean out of us, as sure as any other “real” disease. Simple things like getting out of bed or eating become overwhelming, monumental tasks. And a hazy fog settles over life, distorting the days or weeks or months with a thick veil.
And the light of a thousand candle-prayers can’t chase it away.
For nearly twenty years I’ve fought this darkness. See, people who’ve had one major depressive episode are increasingly more likely to relapse, making my odds of relapse about…100%. The funny thing is most people have no idea. I’ve gotten really good at pretending. At dutifully wearing a mask of happiness, because “nobody wants to see a sad face.”
And I’ve heard nearly every reason this illness is my fault. And usually those reasons come down to I’m not doing enough to be a good Christian. I’m not praying enough, I’m not reading the Bible enough, I have some sin I haven’t confessed—and if I just had more faith, I’d be healed. Because good Christians—real Christians—don’t get depressed.
I have high blood pressure too. Is that a result of lack of faith? If I prayed more or studied the Bible more, would my blood pressure return to normal? Do real Christians not have high blood pressure?
See how silly that all sounds? I can’t pray away depression any more than I can pray away high blood pressure. So why do I keep secret the pills that regulate the chemicals in my brain but not the ones that lower my blood pressure?
Because I still think it’s my fault. That there’s something in me that’s lacking and surely, someday, I’ll find that last piece of the puzzle and be well.
I think I found it.
See, Jesus, he never promised life wouldn’t hurt. He promised the opposite—“in this world you will have trouble.” And that means that disease and illness and sorrow and pain are a part of life. Bad things happen, sometimes for no apparent reason. People get sick. Worlds go dark. Life is messy and hard and ugly and nobody ever talks about that because it doesn’t fit with our idea of abundant life. But the upside of that promise of trouble is the guarantee that he has overcome the world, and that my strength and joy is found in him and his power. Ultimately, he wins. And Jesus is what makes life beautiful. He takes hold of the ugly and shakes it right out until his beauty shines in and through life.
It takes whole lifetimes.
So those days I wake up feeling fragile, and that homesick, heartsick longing for home creeps in, that yearning for a place I’ve never seen but know because he set it in my heart from the beginning; I can grab hold of the promise that this is not the end.
And when I struggle to believe what I know is true, when I’m wrecked and bruised and all I’ve got is a strangled, broken “Jesus…” I have to trust that it’s enough. And it is, even though it doesn’t always appear to be. Because I’m never anywhere the Lord doesn’t know about and isn’t right in the middle of with me.
And just maybe it’s him pressing in, drawing me closer.
© stephanie g pepper, 2013
for a thorough, serious yet amusing, spot-on blog post about depression, visit Allie at Hyperbole and a Half.