“What if there’s nothing wrong with me?”
The thought stuns me into silence. Because of course there has to be something wrong, otherwise I wouldn’t have been suicidal on and off for the last twenty years, otherwise I would have had no problem being accepted and valued. Wouldn’t I? I’ve spent so much energy over the last twenty years trying to work out what is wrong with me and to fix it.
But what if there’s nothing to fix? If there’s nothing wrong, then I don’t need fixing, I just need accepting. And that’s a whole different thing.
If there’s something wrong with me, then there is potentially something wrong with other people too, something some outside expert is needed to fix. The world becomes a place for the haves and the have-nots, the whole and the broken. And maybe, just maybe, the less-thans can “make good”, win their way back to acceptance and belonging.
But it doesn’t work like that. God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. God’s love is poured out for all, whoever and however we are. Christ welcomes all in, just as we are. Just as we are is enough. You are enough, just as you are right now. You don’t need to earn yourself love and respect. You are worthy of that, just as you are. You already belong. Just as I do.
What would the world look like if we accepted first, if we worked with, instead of insisting everyone fits into the same-shaped boxes? Nobody I know is the same as anyone else I’ve met. Even identical twins are starkly different. We are all put together with different gifts and abilities and natural bents. Your way of thinking is not the same as mine, and that’s a good thing. We need our diversity; we need to learn to harness it as a strength of humanity, as a strength of our communities. Together, we balance each other out, but only if we lead with acceptance and open arms, only if we are open about our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
If we try to live in a cookie-cutter society, we all lose out, we all feel like parts of ourselves are not welcome, not right, not good enough. But if we can see how my strengths balance out your weaknesses, and how your strengths balance out someone else’s, then our weaknesses are no longer a failing, they are an opportunity for someone else to shine, to strengthen the whole. And we no longer need to hide our talents in fear of not fitting it, in fear of being rejected, because we can see they are needed, they are wanted, they are valued.
For me, it wasn’t just that there must be something bad present, or some lack of good, but that the good that was there was somehow wrong too. I was too smart, too clever, too quick. I was both too much and not enough. My classmates, my teachers wanted me to slow down. And so, I did. I dimmed my light. I disengaged. I shut myself down. I tried to keep myself within safe limits so I could still belong. But I didn’t belong anyway. And in no longer being true to myself and who God made me, I no longer belonged to myself either. Just as people around me did not accept me, I learned not to accept myself.
Traditionally, the theme for this week of advent is Peace, as we look forward to the coming Prince of Peace. But how can we make the way of peace is our own lives? How can we make peace with ourselves? If we are to live out the way of Christ, if we are to be followers of The Way of Peace, how do we now treat ourselves? Can we welcome in all that we are right now? Can we hold ourselves with loving acceptance and gentle kindness?
And it feels strange and familiar to me all at once, because I have been finding these small ways of being sneaking into my life already, taking back inch by inch, accepting and holding with love millimetre by millimetre. The working with, instead of fighting against. The loving-kindness, instead of harsh critique. Softness, gentleness, walking with myself in Love.
As we prepare to receive Christ as he enters the world, to accept him in all his fullness of God, to make room for him, perhaps we can accept ourselves too, holding space for us to be fully who God made us to be.
It’s the end of a busy and chaotic year, and I just feel so weary. Yet here is Advent, here is a voice crying out, “prepare the way of the Lord.” And it’s just one more thing on the endless list of tasks.
It’s so easy to feel guilty for not making this key Christian season a priority, to not set this time apart as sacred. But I feel like I have nothing left to give.
Traditionally Hope is the theme for the first week of Advent, though another guide labels it as Expectancy. I like the sure certainty of the second, it speaks of acting towards. Hope seems too distant, too ethereal. But expectancy? I can plan for it.
I can expect a friend to be coming round, so put the kettle on. I can expect Christmas in nineteen days and plan for it by wrapping presents, baking cookies, coordinating with family so we don’t all bring salad.
Even with some unexpecteds, we have scripts we can go to, knowledge of how to handle it and respond. It’s why we do practice runs in first aid courses, why we have emergency procedures written down before things happen rather than reactively. Summer heat and sun is here early? Then let’s get the sunshade up, the suncream out, let’s reorder activities so we’re not outside in the heat of the day. We know what to do.
But hope? How do we handle that when it comes to pass? We don’t really quite know how to respond when that best-possible-result happens, when that secret dream that we don’t really believe is possible actually comes true. We can see it in lottery winners, most of whom are no better off, if not worse off, five or so years after a big win. They weren’t planning on it happening, so they didn’t know what to do when it did.
I wonder if the Israelites were the same way as they waited for a messiah. Do you think they said to each other, “it sounds so lovely, it would be so great if that happened, but it never will, the world doesn’t work like that.” Do you think they looked around themselves at all the evidence of why it could never be true? Perhaps some scoffed at the idea of being a chosen people of God, when they seemed just like everyone else.
How many do you think had the hope, but not the expectancy? “Not in my lifetime.” “Dreams are free,” they say, “but how does that help me put food on the table?” Maybe they had a saying similar to this old favourite: “If wishes were horses then wombles would ride.”
But we read in Luke 2 of two people who weren’t just hoping a messiah would come, but who were living in expectation.
Anna is an old woman, probably over 100 (84 years of widowhood + 7 years of marriage + n-years to reach ‘maidenhood’), labelled a prophetess. She recognised Jesus as the answer to Jerusalem’s search for redemption.
Simeon is the other, and I have always pictured him as old too, not because there is any mention of his age in Luke, but because after seeing Jesus he is willing to release his life into death, his life is now complete in his eyes. The Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, the Christ. And so, he could live in expectancy, knowing that at some point it was sure to happen. Luke says that Simeon was prompted by the Spirit that day to go into the temple – to be in the right place at the right time for God’s promise to come to pass.
Both Simeon and Anna responded to seeing Jesus with praise and thanksgiving to God. These two people, amidst thousands of other Israelites and Gentiles could see in this babe God’s promise of a messiah coming to pass – because they were expecting it.
It’s easy for us to expect Christmas. It happened, as a singular event, more than two thousand years ago, and we now have a set date to celebrate it. But what other hopes have we been promised that we are failing to expect? Do we trust our God to be faithful in their delivery too?
In English, hope is more closely linked to wishes and dreams, distant and ethereal, than expectations and goals that we can plan and deliberately move towards. But in the original language of the Bible, what is translated as ‘hope’ is more of a sure expectancy.
It’s easy for us to sit back and wait for God to miraculously bring his promises to fruition, but God asks to partner with us in bringing this God-story to life. God wants our hands and feet and mouths at work in unity with the Spirit. We are part of the force bringing these hopes to reality. We are part of the answer to the world’s cry for redemption and healing. We are part of bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.
A few years ago, God gave me a bit of insight into what I’m heading towards, but for most of that time I have left it untouched, I have done very little to directly prepare myself for it. But we are not called to stand still, we are filled with the Holy Spirit which blows through us and moves across the earth. A wind which is still is no wind at all. So how can we be people of the Spirit if we just sit on our hands waiting for things to happen?
Christmas is coming. So, yes, how can we prepare for it?
But more importantly, how can we prepare the way of the Lord to move in and through our lives? How can we prepare ourselves for the work to come? How can we bring God’s kingdom to this earth? How can we be people of expectancy?
Our society has taught us that anxiety and peacefulness are at opposite ends of a spectrum. In its black-and-white, non-dual nature, we are taught that they cannot co-exist, that to be anxious is to be unpeaceful and to be peaceful is to have an absence of anxiety.
With this lens, it’s easy to read Philippians 4:6-7 as transactional. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace that surpasses all comprehension shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ.”
If we’re anxious, all we need to do is pray more and be thankful, and then God will give us peace. If we’re anxious, we’re not doing this enough or not properly or we’re not trusting God for the peace only God can provide. We read it as our own fault if we are not at peace. We read it as anxieties and peace are in opposition, only one can be present at a time, that God’s peace (if we’re doing it right) expands to take up the space where anxiety has been, pushing it out so there is no room for it any longer.
A few weeks ago, I watched a video which used worries and anxieties as evidence of a lack of Christ’s peace in our lives. Although it wasn’t intended as such, this sharp contrast is dangerous and harmful. As someone who has lived with an anxiety disorder for all of my adult life, as someone who has chosen to self-harm in order to avoid panic attacks, I want to stand up and say that this way of talking about anxiety and peace is harmful to some of our most vulnerable.
It is harmful because it constructs one’s lack of peace, one’s anxieties, as one’s own fault. If you are not at peace, then you are just not praying right or are lacking in faith, then you are not doing this relationship-with-God-thing right or properly because if you were, these anxieties wouldn’t be happening, you would be able to cope with, or ‘bear’, the stresses in your life.
But my own experience has taught me how wrong it is; my life is proof that they are not mutually exclusive, these states can coexist.
Go read those verses again. Do they say anything about the peace edging out anxieties? Do they say anything about the anxieties being gone? Rather, they speak of peace being present with the anxieties, guarding us against the damage anxieties might cause.
I have learned (and had to learn) to maintain a sense of peace, even while anxieties are on-going. I have learned that I can stand in the peace of Christ and let my anxieties spin themselves out. I don’t have to fight against myself to be at peace.
Putting peace and anxiety in opposition means you have to conquer anxiety first, before you can possess Christ’s peace. But this forgets that God has acted first. This ignores the fact that when we stand in Christ, we are no longer bound to our anxieties and our fears, we have liberation from them, we already possess Christ’s peace.
We are called to live by faith, not by might, not by striving, not by wrestling ourselves into submission. When peace and anxiety are understood in opposition, we must fight against ourselves, we are invited to constantly and repeatedly see ourselves as not good enough, as flawed and broken and we fuel our anxieties further and, at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to rest in peace.
But in Christ we are invited to view ourselves with compassion, and we can open our arms to ourselves in love.
We have a hormone in our body called oxytocin. Commonly known as the love hormone or the hug hormone, it is released in our bodies when we receive gentle loving touch, when we are met with words of loving-kindness. It’s commonly talked about in reference to new mothers because it is released when breastfeeding. It’s also released for both mum and baby with that first skin-on-skin contact after birth that they midwives love so much. And the wonder of this hormone is that it relaxes us, bonds us together, and aids healing. It brings calmness to our minds and bodies by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
You will, no doubt, have heard of the flight-or-fight response, it activates when we are stressed or anxious. It literally activates our entire body and mind to get us out of trouble: time seems to slow, awareness increases, muscles are primed and ready. But it doesn’t let us rest and it doesn’t let us heal. Its job is to get us to safety, and then it can switch off and let the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest system) do the work of recovery.
So, when we approach anxiety as something to be fought off, to struggle against, we are actually physiologically stopping ourselves from being at peace. But when we respond to anxieties and stresses with gentleness and compassion – with love, we can rest and unwind, and be at peace. Ironically, we need to respond to anxiety with the opposite response to what it provokes.
“After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Galatians 3:3. Rather that our own striving to create peace, we need to rest in what God has already given us in Christ.
Think of how we might respond to an anxious child (of course, this is much easier when we, ourselves, are at peace and standing in confidence) – with calm reassurance, gentle touch – all the things which cause the release of oxytocin and which relax and calm, all things which speak of love.
When we approach anxiety with love, when Love is our way of being, we can meet it with peace. Not conquer it, not beat it down, but embrace it with the arms of God. Our anxiety, just like the rest of us, is welcomed in.
Peace isn’t something to achieve by fighting off anxiety, or by swamping it with so much gratitude that it has no room to move. Peace and love greet anxiety with open arms, and it is only there that anxiety can at last find rest. It is a working with, not a struggling against. It is non-violence in action. To slam the door in Anxiety’s face, to fight to shut it out only makes it more anxious, only increases its volume in your life, increases the clamour of its voice through the keyhole. This life of peace and love is one of abundance and fullness, not austere perfection through eradication.
So, rather than fighting anxiety with peace, we can learn to cultivate peace in the midst of anxiety, we can learn to hold ourselves in an attitude of love and peace while anxieties rage inside and stressors press from the outside (though it can be good to practice this outside of stressful situations first). Part of us can know, and rest in, the love and peace of God all the while, and we can tap into it to help centre ourselves again in the One who holds us through all things. We can know that our anxieties don’t define us and they most certainly cannot prevent us from coming to God. “Neither height nor depth, nor anxieties, nor stressors, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39, my paraphrase). We can stand firm in the knowledge that anxieties and worries cannot keep us from Christ’s peace.
And when we repeatedly meet them with compassion and love, they become invitations into God’s presence, invitations to rest again in Christ’s peace, and let our anxieties spin themselves out and be put back into perspective alongside God’s love for us.
We are no longer under obligation to follow the rabbit-hole of our worries, Christ has set us free from this bondage, so that we might ground our lives in Love. In Christ, anxiety no longer has control. We can deny it the power to bear fruit in our lives because we are free to choose love and peace.
We do not bring ourselves peace by chasing out anxiety. But when we bring the two together, when we hold our anxieties with hands of peace, is it then that the wind is taken out of anxiety’s sails, it is there within peace that anxiety can finally rest.
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