When Joy is Elusive

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“While many people are spinning toward the holidays singing Christmas carols and going to fun parties, there are a whole bunch of others hanging by a thread.”
Dec_KathyWhile so many people are singing “Joy to the World” this season, happy about the holidays and gearing up for Christmas fun, many others couldn’t dread this season more. This time of year stirs up all kinds of trouble for many people I personally know; a heaviness starts to fill the air right around Thanksgiving and often lasts until New Year’s.

Joy feels elusive. Hope is hard to find. Peace seems like a distant dream.

It’s always a tricky season for me at The Refuge, my faith community, because I like Christmas. I’m not crazy about the commercialism and try to avoid stores at all costs, but I do enjoy this time of year. I love the story of Jesus because of its upside-downness and the wild and wacky ways He entered into the world as God-in-the-flesh, with us. I love the intentional focus and celebrating each week of Advent.

And yes, I can easily sing “Joy to the World” and not have it bug the crap out of me.

At the same time, I deeply respect that it is a time of year where things start to go haywire for many. While many people are spinning toward the holidays singing Christmas carols and going to fun parties, there are a whole bunch of others hanging by a thread.

This monthly column at SheLoves is centered on downward mobility and life in the trenches with real life and real people. I want to honor that these times in the year can be extra hard, extra weird, extra lonely. It doesn’t mean joy isn’t possible, that it can’t break through the darkness. But it does mean that for many, joy may feel really elusive.

Christmas can be a painful reminder that:

We aren’t where we wish we were. We don’t have money, partners, kids, health, security, friends, community, healing, sobriety, you-name-its that we thought we would at this point and that can feel so discouraging.

We feel so alone. Some of us feel lonely in the relationships we are in, while others feel lonely because we don’t have them at all.

We are worn down and worn out. Life takes its toll. Things often don’t go the way we want. Our families are struggling, our kids are exhausting, our jobs are stressful, our churches are unfulfilling, our hearts are tired from loss and change. We really just want to crawl under the covers and re-emerge in January.

Our families are tricky (probably a way too nice word) or nonexistent. For some, family stuff is easy, while for others, the pit in our stomach starts long before we drive up and knock on the door. Often, there’s no home to go to and we are painfully reminded of our orphan-ness or the harsh realities of divorce and single parent-ness.

Life is flying by. Another year has come and gone and here we are, one year older and one less year left to pursue some of our dreams. And then sometimes we wonder about our dreams and if they are even possible.

We are missing it with God somehow. We might not have a church or community that feeds us like before or often we just feel empty in our connection with God. We feel spiritually empty but don’t really know how to fill up anymore.

Hope feels dangerous. This season is supposed to be a time of hope and anticipation, but sometimes hope feels dangerous. Hope makes us vulnerable. Hope means risk. Hope requires letting our guard down, and we don’t want to get hurt again.

Goodness, if you didn’t already feel bad, this list might have really done you in!

However, if you’re in this spot right now, I hope that somehow you feel less alone. You are in good company. You’re not crazy. You’re not faithless. You’re not weak.

I recently heard Brene Brown share here in Denver. Everything she talked about cuts right to the core, and she has a way of getting to the heart of what we are experiencing as humans. My heart was stirred in all kinds of ways, but there was one part that really struck me. Based on her research on shame and wholeheartedness, she discovered that joy is directly correlated to vulnerability.

In other words, the more vulnerable we are, the more joy we ultimately experience.

When we are closed off, self-protecting, hardened, afraid, locked-up, we can’t experience joy. When we allow ourselves to hurt, to feel, to live, joy seeps in.

It makes me think of Psalm 126: 5, which says “Those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy.”

Shouts of joy seem like a stretch after the list I just shared, but I want to mention it here for an important reason. Honesty about our feelings, our realities, our lives, our struggles, how-we’re-really-feeling-about-Christmas, is better than hiding it and pretending we are doing better than we are.

In the end, being honest is always better than hiding.
And in the end, it leads to joy.

Joy is not just singing Fa-la-la-la-la-la
Joy is not painted on smiles.
Joy is not pretending we are something we’re not to keep the peace.
Joy is not ignoring the realities of our pain, our stories, our grief.

Joy is somehow about hope.

And as Brene Brown says, “Hope is a function of struggle.”

My hope this season for me, for all of us, is that if we’re struggling this season, we find a way to be honest about it. That we don’t fear it or ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist, but that we find safe spaces and places to share the truth of our hearts.

And that as we do, joy becomes less and less elusive.

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Kathy Escobar
Kathy Escobar co-pastors The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver. A trained spiritual director, speaker, and advocate, she also blogs regularly about life and faith at kathyescobar.com and is the author of Faith Shift and Down We Go—Living out the Wild Ways of Jesus. A mom of 5 young adults and teens, she is married to Jose and lives in Arvada, Colorado.
Kathy Escobar

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