The Improbable Christmas Story and Depression

This is a time when people are more aware of
depression. Yet, it’s also the time to remember the improbability of the
Christmas story and find hope in it.

I’ve received a couple of Christmas letters and talked with a few individuals that mentioned how depressed they are this year. Some attribute it to the course the United States has taken. Some mention the crisis in health care for the poor in the state of Tennessee. Some mention Christians who demonstrate more intolerance than peace and goodwill in this season of hope.

I understand each of these concerns. The pain these folks are experiencing is real. The evidence they cite is also real. There’s good reason to be depressed about the state of the world today. The bumper sticker is right: “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.”

But, I’ve come to the position that giving in to depression, even when the evidence is so strong to support it, is to give in to the powers and principalities and allow the dark forces a victory. And I rebel against that.

I’m not writing here of depression that’s caused by disease, serious metabolic or chemical imbalances, significant psychiatric factors or that condition known otherwise as clinical depression. I’m writing of the more common depression that afflicts millions and is treatable with cognitive therapy and medicines.

I heard an excellent sermon last Sunday on the improbability of the Christmas story. The pastor, Judi Hoffman, noted that by any measure the idea that enduring, divine love would be introduced into our lives through an unwed, peasant girl from a podunk town as she and her betrothed slept with animals in a barn, is an improbable tale.

I would add that the young couple were displaced by the demand to register for a census conducted by an occupying power, and surely Joseph would have preferred to build furniture in his shop than undertake a long walk with his pregnant bride-to-be. There’s nothing nearly so romantic in the hard realities of this story as we revere in the picture postcard trivialization of Christmas so common today. This is pretty bleak stuff.

Yet, I thought, this tale has endured the centuries and inspired a movement that has embodied compassion and hope, as well as intolerance and cruelty when followers have gone astray.

But I’m choosing to take hope in the improbability of it all, that within human experience love can penetrate the darkest thoughts and most cruel behavior, all evidence to the contrary. This is true even when circumstances seem most destructive and when those who ought to know better betray their highest and best values.

Be brave.
Be strong.
Don’t give up.
Expect God
to get
here soon.
Psalm 31:24
The Message

This a story of outsiders embraced by love beyond human understanding; a story about misfits, malcontents and the forgotten bearing witness to the best of human and divine, an improbable story that gives one hope even in the face of the bleakest circumstances.

And over the years, I’ve come to another conclusion. Depression–that condition known as “mild” depression–involves a conscious act of desicion. To be or not to be. Even when it doesn’t feel as if it’s possible to choose not to be depressed, a conscious effort not to succumb can help.

The very reasons that justify depression also call me to roll up my sleeves and get to work. People are dying in Darfur and Iraq, and a whole lot of other places. Human rights and dignity are being violated here and around the globe. Children are dying of preventable diseases that make their loss all the more tragic. This is depressing.

But this is also where the Christmas story breaks through. To give in to the nihilism of this side of reality is to miss another view of reality, the view from a stable where an unwed peasant girl, a working class carpenter and a child born with animals bear witness to divine love. In this simple, improbable story, hope rises like steam from a cold roof on a winter day. But unlike steam, it endures, animates, and inspires us. It’s not about reason. It’s about our deepest yearnings and desires, and these come to the surface when circumstances press in on us with crushing force. When we know this is not how life ought to be.

It’s improbable and counter-intuitive that when we are most vulnerable we are closest to God; that in our deepest pain the divine is not only present, but is available to transform the bleakest reality.

This story contains a call to transform and be transformed; to live as if that which denies life could be different. It’s an invitation to live as if to demonstrate how different life could be. I know it seems naive, improbable and unrealistic. And because it seems so, the rebel in me is attracted to it like metal shavings to a magnet.

When the whole world is going one direction, to choose to go in another direction is an act of defiance. I like that.

I recall the Psalmist who wrote:
Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up.
Expect God to get here soon.

In the meantime, live as if it were already true. Remember a peasant girl, a working class guy and a baby in a stable. Maybe it is.

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