Advent Therapy

Originally Posted on December 13, 2015 | CHUCK DEGROAT

For years now I’ve been probing the deep psychological wisdom of the ancient mothers and fathers - the pastoral wisdom of St. Gregory, the introduction to story found in St. Augustine’s life and confessions, the developmental pilgrimage to union and flourishing in St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, the invitation to “self-acquaintance” by Richard Baxter. I’ve found this journey to be an immense gift to my clinical work, as it provides the larger Story by which I navigate the particular stories of people in pain.

Part of my work as a pastor of spiritual formation at two different churches was mapping this Story onto the life of a congregation. Thankfully, I didn’t need to create a map. We’ve been given one in the church calendar. The yearly rhythm of the calendar is a kind of corrective to our anxious spirits. It is an antidote to whatever "security strategy" we’ve chosen to live our lives, whether that strategy takes the form of narcissistic control or passive dependency or anxious indecision or a hundred other styles of coping and hoping. 

The season we find ourselves in now is Advent, the first season of the new Christian year, a season of waiting, of longing, of anticipating. Have you found yourself in a season like this before? If we’re honest, we’ve all found ourselves cycling through seasons of anxious anticipation in our lives - some because they do not have the resources for another meal, some amidst the darkness of depression, some during a time of marital uncertainty, some who fear violence because of the color of their skin, some amidst a time of vocational disruption. In these times of uncertainty, it can be hard to hope. It may just feel too dark. Or hope might feel like a cruel joke - why would I ever hope again? Or, hope might be twisted into the form of a kind of naive optimism - God will work it all out! 

Advent meets us right where we are, in whatever strategy for coping or hoping we might employ. Advent hits us between the eyes with the reality that our strategy is not ultimately hopeful, but a form of self-sabotage. And Advent makes the bold promise that by claiming our deepest needs and fears and uncertainties and bringing them in a form of lament and protest before God, we might actually meet the One who is Hope. Advent invites us to cry out from the core, to long and desire that things would be put right in the world and in our hearts. Advent is therapeutic.

Now, here is the tough part. Advent is not about naive optimism. Advent isn’t a promise that if we just spill our guts to God, everything will be neatly packaged in a glittering box for us on Christmas Day. Nor is Advent about settling for a life of deferred hope - a kind of despairing life where we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I guess the Christian life is just about waiting.” If either one of these is where we land, Advent has not yet done its therapeutic work. No, while Advent does not promise instant deliverance or a world made right overnight or the end of your depression and marital uncertainty, it does promise something even better.

God’s presence.

Advent anticipates the very best hope of all - Immanuel, God with us. I like to think of it this way. Sometimes, I need to be seen, to be known, maybe even to be hugged. I need you to be present to me in my pain. I don’t need a fix…I need you. And God knows this need better than we do. Advent anticipates God showing up. Advent invites you to cry out, “Will you show up for me?” It longs for the response, “I am with you, do not fear."

It is astounding to me…and it’s taken me 45 years to begin to get this…that God did not only show up, but God took up residence in my very being, and yours. Sometimes, when I’m in my stuff, I’m not very present to God. When things are tough, it’s not like God goes away, because God has taken up residence. No, it’s like I go away. I become a stranger to my own heart, my own being, my own presence. In those times, I feel lost. Advent’s cry is, “God, I need you. I’m tired of my own strategies for coping and hoping. Be with me.”

God is not like a meddling spouse or friend who tries to fix you. God comes closer. God listens. God waits with you. God dwells with you even when you feel like your being is the most repulsive, inhospitable residence in the world. God, in Jesus, is used to taking up residence in inhospitable places.

And so, join the Advent cry. Long deeply, and let Hope meet you right where you are.

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