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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Hope

I contemplated writing another Christmas themed fiction to post here on my blog as a gift to my readers, like I did last year. Several appeared to appreciate that story, so I thought it would be something good to continue. But I decided today to do something a little different, and a little more personal for my Christmas blog post. I decided to tell about a special Christmas in my life.

What made it special? Really, it is what happened before that. I went into one of the worst depressions of my life. I don't get depressed all that often, but in 1988, several events conspired to drag me down.

One impending issue was my ministerial license. I had graduated from college in 1984. Four years later I hadn't gone to seminary nor had I become a pastor. When I met with the district board that year, they told me that if I hadn't either headed to seminary or found a pastorate, they wouldn't renew my license the following year.

Problem was, I had no luck getting a pastorate. Went to a few interviews, but nothing had ever materialized. And I had a mobile home that I couldn't seem to sell, even though I had tried for a couple of years. Until I came out from under that, there was no way to pull up roots and go to seminary in Kansas City, MO. So as the year marched on, and I knew I would be facing the board again the following year, the threat of losing my license and all that I had gone to college for pressed in upon me.

On top of that, I worked at a job that hadn't kept up with the bills. Each month I sat down to decide who would get paid and who would have to wait. This situation had gone on for at least three years. There were times I would think I was about to climb out of the hole, only to have something happen that shoved me back down. By the fall of 1988, I had grown weary of struggling with the bills, and began to believe that I would never get out of this downward financial spiral. The constant pressure and self-doubt of not being able to pay my bills began to get to me.

I also had some negative things happen at church that ate away at my self-esteem. Our young adult group did a monthly get together, where one family would plan it and get the goodies together each month. These were always well attended and fun. When it was our turn, I planned this fun seeking for clues. They would get an envelope with a clue in it, which would lead to the next clue, and the next, and so on until they found the prize. The task was to see who could get to it first. The night arrived, and no one except the Sunday School teacher showed up. Everyone had an excuse. I had felt an underlying sense of people didn't take me seriously, or respect that I could take on something and make it work from some previous events that had happened. But that night I felt I could no longer ignore the reality that no one in that church believed I could head up a function and make it work well. No one wanted to attend anything that I planned or taught.  And the pity that came later as some found out what happened didn't help any either. I couldn't get past the thought that they only did it because they felt bad about what they really felt inside about me. The cat was out of the bag, and they felt guilty about it. But out of the bag nonetheless.

To make matters worse, my wife had become pregnant the year before. Yes, that overall is a good thing.  And I wouldn't trade my son for anything. But at the time my wife dealt with sickness all through her pregnancy. Her desire for any intimate relationship, whether that be hugging or more, had gone out the window. I struggled through her pregnancy that year until my son was born on September 9, 1988. I expected her to finally get better and be able to emotionally support me as those other issues rushed toward me.

But I had already gone into a depression of sorts by then, even though at the time I didn't realize it. Because of that, she didn't want to be around me because I was so depressing. She didn't want to get sucked into my depression, so she withdrew. Which, or course, only made my depression worse. I didn't feel connected to her at all.

As if that wasn't enough, one month after my wife gave birth, her gall bladder sent her into pains. She ended up in the hospital, getting her gall bladder taken out. I had to take care of my three year old daughter and the new baby while she went under the knife and recuperated. Thankfully, her sister who lived nearby was able to help me out. Don't know how I would have made it. I was in the situation of expecting to be the strong one, and I didn't feel strong at all. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and sinking fast.

By the time she returned home in mid-October of that year, I hit rock bottom. I felt I would lose my license and would never pastor a church. The bills would spiral out of control and flush me financially down the toilet. My wife would hate to be around me and hold me at arms length forever! I knew in my mind these things weren't necessarily true, but at that point it felt like they were. And that's what mattered as far as my depression went.

When November arrived, I had lost all hope that these things would improve. Literally. I was doomed. It was all going to come crashing in upon me, wave after wave. What did I do? I crashed and burned. All motivation to do anything disappeared. I dropped all responsibilities at church. Just stopped doing them. I couldn't bring myself to open the checkbook and write bills to pay what we could. I had to show my wife how to do it because I simply couldn't. I couldn't do anything, and now everyone could see just how worthless I was. I struggled to even go to work, but at least I did that much.

Now, I'm sure in the grand scheme of things others have had worse depressions than I had that year. But if you've been in one, that matters little because to the one in a depression, everything is bleak, horrible, and the worst it can get, all the while knowing that it will get still worse. So I'm not saying all this to say "my depression was worse than yours, na na ney boo boo!" No, simply that I was in a deep depression. Never had one that worse before then, nor since, though I've had some minor ones since then.

Then December arrived. Christmas music filled the air. Nativity scenes and lights popped up everywhere. The spirit of Christmas nibbled at my heart. Now I know for many, Christmas tends to be one of the more depressing times of the year due to the loss of loved ones, or some tragic event that happened around that time. Some this year will experience their first Christmas without someone dear to them. I'm not belittling that at all. Those are real feelings. I'm not saying deny those or hide them.

But, as Christmas moved closer, I noticed something happening in my heart. And the only way I can describe it is hope. As Christmas approached, I focused on Christ, and what His birth meant to the world, and to me. As I did that, I felt the hopelessness I had experienced the previous few months evaporate in the face of His reality. Hope was born anew in my soul. Literally, by the time Christmas arrived, I felt joy in my heart, and no longer felt depressed. It was as if the world brightened, and I felt at peace about the future, simply because He was there. Alive. Born in a manger so many years ago, but born in my heart, and His hope renewed in my life. How could I not be happy?

What changed? I still didn't have enough money to pay the bills. I still felt the threat of losing my ministerial license the coming spring. I still couldn't sell my mobile home. My wife hadn't at that point indicated any further desire to be with me other than what she had to be. Nothing exterior had changed around me. The same events that pushed me into depression were still there. But I had changed. I began to hope again. Hope that Jesus was enough, and He would get me through whatever would happen. He was in charge.

Well, I hate to make this sound like that alone fixed everything, but it just about did. Because I was no longer depressed, my wife started wanting to be around me. Her desire for me even returned, after over a year of minimal physical contact or desire to be with each other. A couple from our church heard we had a mobile home for sale, and were getting married, and wanted to buy it. The money from the sale allowed me to go on a work and witness trip, and get caught up on all my bills. It also allowed me to start plans to go to Kansas City, so I could start attending seminary. In the month of January, 1989, all the issues that had sent me into depression were resolved. And while 1988 was the worst year of my life to that point, 1989 was the best and brightest year. I did move to Kansas City and start going to seminary. The new church I attended looked at me with respect, and I took on some task there that I succeeded wonderfully at. I kept my license and went on to pastor two churches and be ordained as a minister so I didn't have to renew every year. Life went from horrible to great, all because of a baby in a manger that gave me hope for the future.

I'm not saying have hope and all your problems will disappear. I've had more since then, and not all were totally solved at that point as well. But it didn't matter. He showed me that I shouldn't have to wait until I've hit rock bottom to learn to place the future into His hands. He'll take care of it. My duty is to do what He wants me to do. And to keep hope alive, because He was born into this world to establish that very hope, that our future is not one of death and destruction, but life and joy with Him.

May your Christmas this year be full of hope, given by the gift of Christ Himself, to us. Because of that, I can truly say, Merry Christmas!

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