Spirituality

Making it to Christmas

The Biblical story of Christmas is on one hand miraculous and holy and on the other very relatable. Yes, it is the story of a virgin birth, a light guiding shepherds, and a visit from an angel. But it is also a story of trying your best to do the right thing and having so many barriers and road blocks come up along the way.

Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married, wonderful! …and then she’s impregnated with a baby that isn’t his. What a wrench to throw into a new relationship. How would you react in that situation? I’m guessing in most situations, the man would leave, end of story. How does a relationship continue in the face of such an experience?

The Roman emperor Augustus ordered a census taken, which involved going back to your home town. Imagine everyone in America having to go back to where they were raised. Now take away cars and planes… good luck. Now imagine that you or your fiancé are super pregnant and about to pop. She would definitely not be allowed on any airplane at that point in her pregnancy exactly because it is so high risk. For a pregnant lady, riding on a donkey for days seems even more treacherous. How many times would you have given up?  

But it’s not over yet. They finally get to an inn, only to not be able to have space inside. As we all know, the best they could do was a spot in the stable. They literally had to sleep with the animals. When was the last time you had a flight cancelled or when you couldn’t get a rental car or a hotel room and were stranded? What if sleeping between piles of animal dung was your best option?

Then there was the whole birthing process, which, as often goes these days, did not follow what would have been their birth plan. Had they been able to stay at home, they would have had experienced midwives. (There aren’t stories of birth in the Bible because men were not generally present at births, and most of the books of the Bible are written by men). So, there they were, in a barn, with inexperienced Joseph being the one to help Mary when it was time.

They could have bowed out at any point and the story would have been very different. 

And yet, they did it. They endured. They persisted. Jesus was born.   

Yes, we are privileged in our culture beyond being able to really understand what it must have been like, but we can definitely relate.

We can relate to relationship upheaval. We can relate to having to jump through ridiculous bureaucratic hoops at great cost. We can relate to not having plans go our way and feeling all out of hope. We can relate to it all happening at once.

How did they get through it all?

They had a perspective that kept their focus on the bigger picture. They were blessed with the presence of angels to let them in on God’s big plan, giving them a specific bigger picture to keep their eyes on.

Many of us are not regularly visited by heavenly angels or hear a clear booming voice of God, and so it becomes difficult to grab a hold of that clarifying perspective that allows us to truly let things slide that do not matter. We struggle with the frustrations and tragedies that happen, and we struggle with wanting to understand how such pain fits into any bigger picture.

They had angels, so that we could have Jesus. Mary and Joseph didn’t have Jesus to model how to stay true to one’s highest values, turn the other cheek, care for people in times of hardship, or find love and holiness in impossible situations. They did not yet have Jesus to model how to hold tightly to faith when everything points in the opposite direction. We may never know the big plan or have answers to our “whys” but we can know the “how” of how to move forward, how to respond, how to continue. 

We have infinite choices about where to fix our eyes and about what to put our faith in these days. An infinite number of roadblocks and challenges will come and throw us off balance. We can let the frustration about the cancelled flight or whatever consume and derail us, or we can be ever turning back to what we value most. 

Psychology and Religion

It never ceases to surprise me how there are so often unspoken boundaries between psychology and religion. Understandably, mental health is a messy business, and church staff are rarely trained to deal well with mental health issues. At the same time, may psychologists shy away from in-depth discussion of religion because it is also not something we're particularly trained in. We are instead trained to know our fastball and stick to it. 

Except that our fastball really is the same. We both work tirelessly to help people to love, to love themselves well, and to love others well. Therefore, I ask for you to take a second to be open to considering the richness that might lie in the space where the two overlap, the space where we can help heal, challenge, and grow people into the best of what they can become, one step at a time. 

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The church and the therapy room are places for reaching people in their suffering, and it takes acknowledging that suffering in order for that connection and healing to take place.

If the pain goes unacknowledged then they may persist with self-blame and frustration or go away from the therapy session or the church feeling unseen, often not to return.

They can come away thinking that they don't belong, aren't worthy of love, or are too broken to be helped. Obviously the opposite is true. 

These processes are the same. 

I read an article recently where someone wrote that millennials don't go to church, they go to therapy. As a therapist, I'm not okay with that. Nor is the opposite side of the continuum helpful, where people of faith do not understand or appreciate the value of professional psychological services. It can be both, and too often individuals don't have the experience of how the church and mental health professionals interact, of how they are complimentary. Similarly when people go to therapy seeking to fill that sense of what is greater, they too often fill it with themselves or remain empty. Connection between the two spheres is a rich space for people to heal and grow, fully connecting with who they are meant to be.

Psychology is unique in that it is a science. It emphasizes use of the scientific method to address questions related to mood, behavior, thoughts, and interactions. We use these tools to help people in the most effective way possible, weaving techniques and approaches supported by research with our understanding of the core conditions that help a person feel loved and accepted. As clinical scientists and scientist practitioners do what we can with what we have here on earth. But Dr. Ken Pargament says it best in his excellent books on psychology and religion, that those who fear science debunking spirituality are vastly underestimating God and vastly overestimating science. Religion has nothing to fear from psychology and vice versa.

But we have so much to gain from each other. There can be shared information and learning; there can be greater appreciation and knowledge about mental health issues, resources, and providers within the church, and within psychology there is so much we can learn about the depth of the existential human experience from the people who have been the original counselors for thousands of years. 

This will the the first of many posts addressing the intersection of psychology and religion. There is so much healing possible at that intersection, and I am hopeful.