When I graduated college, my therapist suggested I stop therapy as well. She explained that therapy is meant to be life-long available but not life-long attended. She told me that for some people therapy can become a crutch. Instead of going into the world and using the tools they have been given in therapy, people can become reliant on their therapist instead of themselves. They never get the opportunity to learn and grow with all their new skills. She assured me I was ready, and I felt ready. I had spent the last four years working incredibly hard to tackle childhood trauma and manage depression and anxiety. I am an enneagram three that was testing high as a six, the enneagram’s idea of a healthy three. My family was commenting on how well-adjusted I had become. I felt ready inside and outside seemed to validate those feelings. I am not perfectly healed, of course. Trauma and mental illness never work that way, but I am equipped with therapeutic tools and a new-found confidence in myself. I had finally washed ashore after a decade of feeling like I was drowning in my sadness. I could stand on a land of my own healing and smile at the sun. What I didn’t expect to find in my healing was even more work. I had just done four years of work, unpacking and unlearning! More of it felt unfair.
When you experience trauma or mental illness at a young age, you grow up with it. It becomes ingrained in you in such a way that it becomes a part of your identity. So healing for me means figuring out a whole new identity. Who am I now that I am healthier? Who am I now that I am well? I didn’t know that woman. I had never met her, and I struggled to reshape myself in this new joy. I felt that struggle in the seemingly small things, like my music choices. Halsey has always been my favorite artist. Her music made sense to the version of me that was here for a good time, not a long time. But as I worked on my self-harm, and suicidal ideation, and made a vow not to kill myself, I realized that I had to be here for a good time and a long time. I no longer wanted to be in toxic relationships, do hard drugs, or die, in dramatic fashion, in the streets of New York City. That knocked out almost all of Halsey’s music. Her stuff just no longer felt relatable. As was the case with much of my favorite music, TV shows, books, and poems. I had to find new media to consume and/or a new mindset with which to consume the old stuff.
Then I started to struggle with some seemingly larger parts of my identity. I just could not connect with God and my faith in the same way that I used to. I clung to these struggle narratives in scripture because I identified with them, but also because I think these were the only narratives that were presented to me. I have to question how much the Church is responsible for keeping me attached to my trauma because I don’t think that we teach joy in the church. We don’t teach people how to find joy in religion despite there being copious amounts of scripture about holy joy.
I went through youth group and campus ministry believing that God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. But here I was—graduated, moving across the country, and the healthiest and happiest I had ever been—feeling pretty damn qualified. I had to ask myself if I was still called, if I still wanted to be called. When I was depressed I knew I needed the church and faith, and I felt like they needed me back. I was the lost sheep, I was the broken thing.
1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” was written on my lock screen for years. I liked the comfort of knowing God could take on my burdens, but I have no idea how God takes on my joy. I used to love the Matthew West song “Broken Things” where he says, “But if it’s true, you use broken things, then here I am Lord, I am all Yours.” If that’s all true, how does the Lord use me when I feel whole? I was taught that Jesus will leave the 99 to find the 1, but no one ever said anything about what happens after we are found. Sure, we are returned to the flock, but we return to the flock changed. No one taught me how we reconnect after the tumultuous journey of that change, of being lost and then found. I went to a Campus Ministry retreat on testimony and the importance of sharing our stories, and every testimony was about the hardships which people were delivered from but never about the after the deliverance. Testimony always ends before the joy is shared.
So I come to you on this third Sunday of Advent, when we light the candle called Joy, asking you to think a little more about exactly what that means in this season and in all seasons. Advent has gifted me a perfect place to start reframing and reconnecting with my faith.
I have seen this “darkness vs. light” debate between church folk on social media a lot lately. The argument is the way we discuss darkness vs. light during Advent is harmful and contributes to the way our society sees race. Dark means bad or negative and light means positive, pure, and holy. The argument is that (and I would agree with it) this teaching contributes to the stereotypes that the United States believes about black and brown folks. They are dark and dangerous in contrast to the innocence and purity of whiteness. Because of this, I’ve seen a lot of pastors say that we need to change the language. We can’t use “darkness” and “light.” We have to use “shadow” and “gloom” or “joy” and “hope”. Except those words still conjure up images of darkness and light, and then it is still going to circle back to race, and black vs. white.
At first this sad way I was taught to see Advent was comforting, I believed my whole life to be a season of Advent. I was depressed. It felt dark, but I believed at some point in my life there was a way out. There was light. Now, I question why we even teach Advent like this. The Advent Wreath candles are named for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, not Shadow, Gloom, Depression, and Fear. It’s not that we need to change the language we use to describe Advent and Christmas. It’s that we need to rethink our motivation behind using said language.
We need to break down the binary of darkness being synonymous with sadness and make space for joy. I think what a lot of people are missing is that Advent is a wilderness. It’s a journey. Literally, Mary and Joseph have to make the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and once they get to their destination, and Jesus is born, their lives will never be the same.
To me, wilderness journeys are about transformations. While there is a mourning of what was, that comes with any life transformation, Advent can not only be seen as a time of darkness, shadow, gloom, or whatever word you want to use. There are scary parts, and it is definitely a time of uncertainty, but more than anything I am starting to see Advent as an opportunity, a joyful opportunity, a chance to emerge changed. Advent is a time of preparation that requires an active participation.
During a pregnancy a family isn’t just sitting and waiting for the baby to show up. They are building a nursery, and going to doctor appointments, and maybe sharing these moments with their community. The family is changing their life to prepare for the baby, and that’s what Mary’s time of pregnancy grants us—a divine opportunity to work on ourselves and our community and also to celebrate! We sing Mary’s Magnificat and say confidently, “My soul rejoices in God my Savior,” not as a Christmas carol but as an Advent Hymn. There is a joyful celebration in the darkness.
Similarly, the birth of Jesus isn’t only perfection. While Jesus himself is perfect, his birth is filled with fear and danger. The first thing that happens after the Nativity story, at least in Matthew’s gospel, is that the Holy Family becomes refugees and must flee the slaughter of the innocents. On the first Sunday After Christmas, we will read from Luke’s gospel about Mary and Joseph losing young Jesus for three whole days. They search for him “in great anxiety.” The Light of the Christmas season isn’t only spectacular. It has its own troubles.
Instead of the strict binary of the darkness of Advent being bad and the light of the Christmas season being good, we need to reframe our thinking by allowing both seasons to be complex and unique in their own way. When we do that, the inherent racism problem will also go away. Let dark and light skin be complex and unique and exist outside of a binary of stereotypes and presumptions. This movement away from binary and towards duality is how I’m starting my journey to reconnect with God now that I am well and I feel whole. I’m making room for the joy in Advent by dancing in the darkness and abiding in the opportunity to transform, be transformed, and share joyful testimony about what happens after we are found.